By Greg Paul
The U.S. Geological Survey has outlined an ambitious – though unfunded and unapproved – road map for wiring Yellowstone over the next decade to keep better tabs on its geologic life.
Jake Lowenstern, a USGS geologist and head of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, said the plan is meant as a starting point for launching discussions about how best to monitor the park. It’s our way of thinking through what sort of techniques would be useful … what we do and why and then where do we fall short and how we might improve,” Lowenstern said.
The proposal suggests upgrades in Yellowstone’s seismic network, more gauges to monitor streams and potentially dangerous gases, Global Positioning System stations that help predict ground-splitting explosions, and even instruments hundreds of feet below the ground to monitor groundwater, magma and shifting rocks.
In the past 2 million years, Yellowstone has launched three of the largest volcanic eruptions on the planet. Another major eruption of what some have called a “supervolcano” has been the topic of much speculation in recent years.
“In terms of knowing whether an eruption is going to happen, we already have a pretty good system,” Lowenstern said.
Yellowstone’s volcanic system was classified as a “high-threat” system by the federal government in a report last year that noted the park doesn’t have enough gauges and gadgets to keep track of it.
Upgrading the system would help detect “subtle, precursory changes that are likely to occur before hazardous events” so people can be given plenty of notice, the USGS plan said.
There are already 26 seismic stations in Yellowstone. Satellites, GPS stations and other instruments also monitor its movements.
One of the shortcomings of the current system is that in a large earthquake, the instruments might be so disrupted they couldn’t faithfully record what’s going on. Some of the technology is also outmoded – much of it is analog, not digital – and the park doesn’t have a redundant system that would allow important geologic data to be relayed outside the park in the case of a large-scale event.
Any new instruments, including those buried in the ground, would need approval from the National Park Service. Though there has been talk of putting more devices in the backcountry, Lowenstern said USGS tries to be as unobtrusive as possible.