10 New Sensors to Monitor Yellowstone Supervolcano

Yellowstone to Become Best Monitored Hot Spots in World

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December 25, 2009
Brett French
The Missoulian

BILLINGS - With funding made available for the installation of 10 new seismic monitoring stations over the next two years, the Yellowstone super volcano will soon be the best-monitored hot spot in the world, according to Bob Smith.

"We should have a fantastic network, probably the best in the world over an active volcano," said Smith, a University of Utah geology and geophysics professor and member of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The observatory is jointly operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, Yellowstone National Park and the University of Utah. Funding for the project will come from a portion of $950,000 in Recovery Act money given to the observatory.

In addition to seismic monitoring, part of the money will go to new sensors for river monitoring and the installation of a temperature sensor network, as well as for people to do installation and administration. A variety of software tools, alarms and display systems for use by the observatory's partners and collaborating agencies will also be paid for with the Recovery Act funds.

"It will provide everyone with better raw data," said Jake Lowenstern, scientist in charge of the observatory. "All the data is public. So everyone will have much better data."


Smith has long lobbied for improvement of the monitoring equipment for the Yellowstone volcano. The Yellowstone Seismic Network consists of 26 sites, some dating back to the mid-1960s, he said. But now that new installations are planned, Smith is a bit overwhelmed by all the labor that will be involved in the upgrade.

"That's an enormous amount of work we have," he said. "I've been up there all summer planning."

About $280,000 of the funding will go to the University of Utah to upgrade at least 10 of the seismic stations and to improve the system's alarm capability, Lowenstern said. The new alarm system will allow smaller seismic events to be posted directly to the Internet. Right now, any quake smaller than 2.5 in magnitude is filtered through a person to ensure false events are not posted.

"We'll dedicate some analyst time to figure out ways to automate the system better," Lowenstern said. "That will be better for everybody."

Part of the seismic network will also include sensors capable of measuring larger events that can rattle more sensitive monitors, called strong motion equipment.

"That will give us a better look at waves when there's a lot of ground shaking," Lowenstern said.


Another $95,000 of the Recovery Act funds will go to the Wyoming State Geological Survey to create an Internet-based map server to allow the public and researchers to view geological maps of Yellowstone on the Internet. The maps could then be overlaid with other maps, such as ones denoting earthquake locations, Lowenstern said.

"We'll provide them with the geological data," he said. "Some of the data is already out there, but we'll put it all in one place. This will make it easier for the public, and for us to update the information at any time."

About $26,000 of the Recovery Act funds are dedicated to the purchase and installation of six sensors to measure river temperatures, depth and conductivity in Yellowstone waters.

"By putting these in, we can look at places we've never looked at before," Lowenstern said, without having to install larger, more intrusive river-monitoring stations.

Last, a $22,400 temperature-sensor network will be installed in the Norris Geyser Basin near hot springs and in the soil. The sensors will relay information directly to the Internet, providing real-time data. Before, someone would have to go to the sensors, download the information and then upload it to the Internet.

The quality of data and the speed at which it will be delivered is a tremendous improvement for scientists studying the Yellowstone super volcano.

"It's the chance of a lifetime," Smith said. "I worked very hard to get that network funded, but now I've got to do it."