Volcanoes are a pretty sexy subject when it comes to the Earth sciences, but as Michael Poland, Scientist-in-Charge at Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, told us, the fieldwork associated with this particular branch of science can be a little tense. While Poland needn’t spend his days sitting next to a volcano – his observatory is actually a digital institution – he has in the past, and continues to be, called in to less stable environments to carry out research. His work stretches beyond just its academic worth as it enables his team to better prepare the wider world for volcanic events. However, as he tells us, gaining an intimate knowledge of these colossal structures doesn’t necessarily ease your anxiety when getting dropped by helicopter at the base of a volcano that’s acting up.
What do you do?
I am the Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, and a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Science Center.
What did it take to get here?
First, I had to build up a lot of experience. That started in school, getting degrees in geology, including a doctorate. I then spent three years at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, where I got to participate in the response to the 2004-2008 eruption of Mount. St. Helens. That was an incredible learning experience. In 2005 I moved to Hawaii and spent the next 10 years working at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. That decade included all sorts of volcanic activity, working with the public, and studying different styles of eruptions. I returned to the Cascades in 2015 and had the opportunity to work on Yellowstone starting in 2017. So, the path involved gaining lots of experience at different types of volcanoes, and also communicating with the public and other scientists.
Second, I had a number of outstanding mentors who helped to teach me what it was to be a scientist. How to communicate. How to identify the most important problems and to address them. The combination of experience and mentoring has really laid the foundation for everything I do today.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I try to learn as much as possible about how volcanoes work so I can better predict future eruptions and help society cope with volcanic hazards. And at Yellowstone, I have the added job of coordinating the research and monitoring efforts of many scientists to better understand the Yellowstone system. It’s exciting work. And it matters. It’s important – not just in an academic sense, but rather it has real-world consequences.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
Most people think that the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) is a place – a building located in or near Yellowstone National Park where there is a staff of USGS volcanologists to watch seismic records and do fieldwork. But in fact, there is no such place! YVO is a “virtual” observatory. There is no physical facility. Instead, YVO is made up of scientists from nine different institutions: USGS, Yellowstone National Park, University of Utah, University of Wyoming, Montana State University, UNAVCO, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Idaho Geological Survey, and Wyoming State Geological Survey. We all collaborate on monitoring and studying Yellowstone. This diversity in institutions, experience, and skills is an incredible strength, and because all data are freely available online, we can work together easily without having to be located in the same physical place. But we all still visit Yellowstone frequently to do fieldwork, compare results, and install new types of monitoring equipment.
Funniest moment on the job?
I had the chance to plan a field campaign to study Medicine Lake Volcano, in northeast California, when I was just starting my career as a USGS volcanologist. I was pretty nervous about it, since I was trusted with quite a lot of responsibility. I dedicated myself to making sure everything was arranged, and everyone knew their jobs on the mission. On the very first day, things didn’t go that well for me. I got a vehicle stuck in the snow, and I discovered that one of the survey markers I was hoping to use as a monitoring site had been destroyed by vandalism. At the end of the day, all I wanted was a shower and a solid night of sleep. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I had forgotten to pack underwear for the trip! And we weren’t exactly close to a store that sold clothes – I couldn’t afford the time to drive to the nearest city. So, I called home and asked my better half to send some underwear to the campsite via FedEx – priority overnight! It worked. To this day, my colleagues still make fun of me by occasionally giving me underwear as a random gift.
Memorable misstep/hairiest moment on the job?
I’ve had a couple of episodes where I was dropped off by a helicopter at a volcano that was acting up, which was a little nerve-wracking. In 2004, as Mount St. Helens was starting to erupt, I was dropped off on the volcano’s upper flank so that I could repair a GPS station, which we were using to monitor changes in the shape of the volcano. Earlier in the day there had been a small explosion, so things were clearly ramping up (ultimately there weren’t really any big events, and the volcano just oozed a lava dome during 2004-2008… but of course, I didn’t know that would be the outcome at the time). I couldn’t see into the crater so I wouldn’t know if anything big was going on until it was too late. And there was nowhere to take shelter, and I was alone. But as I started my work, I noticed a mountain goat on the same ridge, a few hundred feet away. That really relaxed me. I thought, "If he’s happy being on this ridge, so am I!" I did the work and caught the helicopter a few hours later, none the worse for wear.
I had a similar experience in 2018. I was helping respond to the big eruption of Kīlauea in that year. The summit had started to experience large earthquakes and sudden down-drop events, and no one was exactly sure at that point how the activity would evolve. But I was very worried about a priceless piece of equipment that was located in the crater. I got permission to retrieve it – I would be dropped off via helicopter near the station, race out to the site, grab the equipment, and return. I didn’t think it was a big risk, but there were many precautions put in place – observers, protocols for go/no-go, etc – that really started to make me nervous. The helicopter dropped me off and flew up a bit to get an aerial view of the crater. It took me a few minutes to get to the site – I had to cross over some pretty big cracks that had just formed – but within about 10 minutes I had disconnected the equipment and returned to the landing spot. But no helicopter. It was about 1000 feet above me, still doing aerial observations! I had to wait 5 or 10 minutes. Those were some of the longest and loneliest minutes of my life! But nothing happened, we recovered the equipment, and in the ensuing weeks we learned an awful lot about how calderas collapse.
What’s your most treasured piece of kit?
I’ve had the same rock hammer since I started my career in geology. I bought it to use during my very first upper division geology course, and used it throughout college and at my field camp, mapping rocks in the White and Inyo mountains of eastern California. I even dipped it in lava during my first visit to Kīlauea Volcano as part of an undergraduate field class (the hammer today still has a burnt look to it, and part of the rubberized handle is melted). In my work as a geophysicist I rarely need a rock hammer, but I still always take it in the field with me. It’s often useful for helping install and maintain geophysical equipment, but I almost never use it for its original purpose anymore.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Get as much experience as you can and accumulate mentors. Visit volcanoes, if that’s your interest. Work with different scientists. Build your network – identify people that can teach you new things and learn from those people. Open yourself to opportunities to discover. That will set you up for future success by ensuring you are in the best position to take advantage of whatever luck might come your way.