yellowstone photo

MSU is the newest member of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, a consortium of universities and agencies that monitors the Yellowstone supervolcano and conducts volcanic and geologic research.

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Montana State University has become the newest member in a unique consortium dedicated to increasing scientific understanding of Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano.

Scientists from MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science, Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and the Thermal Biology Institute will join eight other universities and agencies in creating and sharing new knowledge about the defining geologic feature of the nation’s first national park.

The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, founded in 2001 and administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service, includes the University of Utah, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, the Wyoming State Geological Survey, the Idaho Geological Survey, the University of Wyoming and UNAVCO, an organization aimed at facilitating geoscientific research and public education.

Madison Myers, who recently joined MSU’s faculty as a volcano specialist with a history of working in Yellowstone, said she jumped at the chance to facilitate MSU’s entry into the observatory.

“Who doesn’t want to be part of a volcano observatory?” she said. “Even though it hasn’t erupted in 70,000 years, there is crucial information we can provide to the people about what’s going on at this volcano.”

The Yellowstone volcano was one of the last volcanic centers in the U.S. to have an established observatory, said Meyers. Other facilities include one in the Cascade Range that monitors volcanoes such as Washington’s Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, as well as observatories in Hawaii, Alaska and California, which includes Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The Yellowstone observatory stands out for the number and range of its member institutions.

Myers said most of the YVO’s work consists of research and observation of the seismic activity and deformation of the system, and the chemistry and geology of the caldera. The geologic work includes identifying where and how far magma lies under the surface and collecting data to update Yellowstone’s geologic map, which helps identify unique geologic features, rock types, strata and mineral makeup of the national park’s unique ecosystem. Other MSU contributors will include microbial ecologist Luke McKay and numerous faculty in the Thermal Biology Institute, which has conducted Yellowstone research for over two decades.

“MSU hosts many research groups who are investigating the chemistry and microbiology of Yellowstone thermal features, which can be thought of as surface expressions of the volcano,” said McKay, who is also a researcher with MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering. “Biological communities representing all domains of life thrive in these high-temperature environments with differing chemical compositions. Understanding these ecosystems gives us a picture of how the dynamic properties of the volcano rise to the surface and support a vast diversity of life.”

For Myers, understanding the Yellowstone volcano is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle to reveal how Yellowstone has changed over tens of thousands of years. Myers and McKay wrote an introductory entry in the observatory’s weekly column, “Caldera Chronicles,” announcing MSU’s induction into the consortium.

“My side of this work will be based on the geology of the park, using information from the past to better understand the future,” she said. “We’re also looking at the dynamics of the last eruption by conducting a massive field survey paired with lab-based chemistry techniques.”

MSU’s membership in the observatory will also open up networking and field opportunities for MSU researchers and students, according to Myers. This summer, two graduate students and five undergraduates are collecting data to update the geologic map. On-the-ground work like that also means that both students and faculty will have the chance to interact with the public about the work they do.

“Being a part of the observatory will afford students more opportunities to be involved in really high impact research, as well as helping inform the public and promote this science,” said Myers. “So many people love Yellowstone for so many different reasons, and bonding over something like an observatory helps us to connect and understand the roles we play in that network.”

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