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Where the Research Meets the Road: Drexel Goes to Yellowstone During NPS100

By Tinashe Michael Tapera

Yellostone

September 16, 2016

A team of researchers, led by Drexel University’s Loyc Vanderkluysen, PhD, and Roger Thomas of the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, embarked on a journey to Yellowstone National Park earlier this month to gather new data on geyser activity in the area. The expedition coincides with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, making this a significant opportunity for the team to appreciate the history of the park.

Vanderkluysen and Thomas were joined by Cameron Petersen, BS geoscience ’17, Christine Sealing and Dani Moyer, two of Vanderkluysen’s PhD students, as well as students and faculty from Michigan Technical University and researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey. I caught up with them before they departed on their cross-country adventure.

Q: What prompted this trip?

Loyc Vanderkluysen: I used to study the gas composition released by a mud volcano in Indonesia. Even though this geological feature mostly released natural gas, it goes through explosive events about every two minutes, sending fountains of hot mud some 60 or 70 feet in the air, in a manner very similar to geysers. We learned a lot about the explosive behavior of water-dominated systems in our Indonesia study, so switching to geysers seemed like an obvious next step.

Q: What do you know so far, and are you hoping to discover?

Vanderkluysen: Historically, gases released by hot springs and fumaroles — such as those found in Yellowstone — have been studied by collecting the gases in a bottle and analyzing them later in the lab. As a result, we have a good sense for what gas species come out of this volcano, but these collection methods are time-consuming and take several months at best. Our collaborators at the U.S. Geological Survey informed us of a fumarole within the park has never been sampled more than four times in the last 20 years, so there’s very little data on how their composition changes over time.

Additionally, explosive features like geysers can’t be approached close enough to be sampled. The instrument we’re bringing to Yellowstone has never been used there to study volcanic gases. It will allow us to study geysers, and analyze gases with one measurement every eight seconds, so we’ll have data on how the gas composition changes over very short time scales.

Q: What does surveying a geyser entail? What data will you be collecting and how will you be using it?

Vanderkluysen: Our instrument measures gases remotely: On one side of the gas plume, we set up what is basically a very large infrared lamp; on the other, 100 feet away or so, we set up a detector. The gases between the lamp and detector absorb some of that light. Because specific gas species absorb light at specific wavelengths, many gas species can be measured simultaneously. The amount of gas can be determined by how much light is absorbed, so we can measure both the types of gas present, and their concentration. With one measurement every eight seconds, we can measure pulsations within geyser eruptions, or detect precursory signals to eruptions.

We hope to use the data to reveal the state of the volcanic system, particularly measures of carbon dioxide and sulfur compounds. It’s generally thought that geyser eruptions don’t erupt much gas at all (except water vapor). We want to test how much gas is actually released during these eruptions — which has never been measured — and see if more gas is released during eruptions, compared to the quiet bubbling between eruptions.

Q: What do these geysers tell us about the environment?

Vanderkluysen: Geysers are essentially hot water springs: They occur in places where the groundwater table is heated by a magma body in a volcanic region to the point where it can boil over. The gas composition and the temperature of a geyser says a lot about the magma body below — and thus is worth monitoring for potential changes in the volcanic system, in case it becomes restless. This isn’t the case at present, however; Yellowstone has had some catastrophic eruptions in the distant past (most recently, some 630,000 years ago), but there’s no indication that any such eruption is on the horizon, or that one will even occur again.

Q: What is the importance of Yellowstone National Park? What's most significant to you about the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service?

Thomas: Many national parks contain rare or endangered plants and animals, and unique environments that need to be preserved for future generations. With increasing pressure to allow intrusions into our National Parks for short-term gains (e.g., coal mining and oil/gas extraction), there’s no way to reverse the damage when these natural habitats are disturbed, and the plants and animals that occupy these rare habitats are displaced. 

Vanderkluysen: We went by a geyser called Minute Geyser, because it used to predictably erupt every 60 seconds. However, several decades ago, visitors threw rocks down the geyser, and now eruptions occur unpredictably. This illustrates how essential the National Parks are to environmental science: They’re one of the few remaining places where natural systems are left untouched. Yellowstone is a very special place geologically — it’s the only place on Earth (today) where an unambiguous, large hotspot-style volcanic system occurs in a continental interior. But more importantly, as a natural scientist, it’s essential to be able to study pristine sites to remove the layer of human interference, and the National Parks are one of the few places on Earth dedicated to the preservation of pristine natural systems.

Q: Switching to our BEES students, what enticed you to go on this trip, and how does this align with your studies?

Cameron Petersen: The prospect of being able to further my field experience through research on an amazingly unique national park like Yellowstone enticed me to go along. Taking part in high quality research, and being comfortable performing fieldwork, which requires various coordination and logistical skills as well as academic knowledge, are important qualities for graduate school.

Dani Moyer: My focus is primarily monitoring active volcanic environments, which made this opportunity incredibly appealing; it allowed me to collaborate with USGS scientists and incorporate monitoring methods that I have been studying throughout my time at Drexel. This trip allows me to put into practice what I have learned through numerous field workshops and classes, while also working towards a project of my very own. 

Christine Sealing: Volcanologists use a variety of methods to study and monitor active volcanoes. These include seismology, GPS, and gas geochemistry, among others. Volcanoes like Yellowstone present particular challenges, as the active hydrothermal system (the boiling mud pools, geysers, and hot springs) can mask signs of magma movement, such as seismic tremor and changes in gas chemistry. A major goal of my PhD is to improve our ability to monitor these so-called “wet” volcanoes by understanding the hydrothermal systems and separating their signals from those of the magmatic system below.

Q: What have been your highlights throughout this research experience?

Sealing: The park itself is probably the greatest highlight so far. The geysers, thermal features, and thick volcanic deposits provide a stunning backdrop to the evergreen forests and abundant wildlife. Though we haven’t seen any moose or bears yet (we keep hoping!), sightings of elk and bison are regular. Another great highlight was meeting and working with Jake Lowenstern of the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. I hope to work for the USGS after I graduate, so I was excited at the opportunity to connect with one of their most respected volcanologists. His experience and intimate knowledge of the park have been both helpful and inspiring.

Moyer: After spending almost a week with the research group, one of the biggest highlights has been the chance to work with a diverse research team composed of scientists with a wide range of experience and expertise. Each day offers new learning experiences that have helped me grow as a researcher, and I look forward to what else I may learn as the trip continues.

Petersen: With about a week under our belts, I would have to say the highlights of the trip would be working with a very cohesive research team, as well as scouting some gorgeous scenery within Yellowstone while choosing locations for setting up our equipment.