New Gloucester's Bryce Neal seeks volcanic secrets beneath Yellowstone

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Bryce Neal of New Gloucester is in his senior year at the University of Maine at Farmington. He will graduate in May.

He started off his freshman year in college as an English major. But during his first semester he took his first geology class and was hooked. He changed his major to geology.

Neal, a graduate of Gray-New Gloucester High School, has always been interested in geology and science, he said.

He spent this past summer with a team of researchers measuring Yellowstone National Park’s magma chambers and super-heated water located in the Earth’s upper crust.

He is keeping his career options open, but is definitely interested in finding more opportunities to do geophysics-related work. 

Name: Bryce Alan Neal

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Age: 21

Town: New Gloucester

Relationship: Single

How did you get interested in geology?  I’ve always been interested in geology and science in general to some degree ever since I was young. When I was in high school, however, I was really interested in literature and writing, so I started off college as an English major. During my first semester, though, I took my first formal geology class, and by the end, I was hooked. So I changed my major and I’ve been studying geology ever since. I’ve always been drawn to mountains, and geology taught me (and continues to teach me) that there’s quite a story in the rocks that make up mountains.

Will you pursue this type of work after college graduation? As far as career paths after graduation go, I’m keeping my options open. I’m definitely looking for opportunities to do geophysics-related work like the kind we did this summer in Yellowstone, however, I’m open to anything earth science related. 

Did you find volcanic secrets hidden beneath Yellowstone National Park? Sure, I suppose you could say that! We definitely did find evidence for the presence of magma (not huge batches of liquid magma you might see in a science-fiction movie, but large bodies of hot, partially molten rock) around 10 to 20 kilometers underground and also around 50 to 80 kilometers underground. The deeper magma body is connected to the shallower bodies, so it may be that partially molten rock is rising up from deeper in the Earth to shallower depths.  This does not mean that there will be an eruption anytime soon, as there’s a lot more evidence needed to indicate an eruption might occur. We also found evidence for underground “plumbing” that circulates super-heated fluids related to Yellowstone’s many geysers and hot springs, like Old Faithful.  

How did you get to investigate beneath Yellowstone? This opportunity was part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program hosted by the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. REU programs are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and their purpose is to provide summer research internships to undergraduate students in the sciences. I applied for the Oregon State REU program last February, and was accepted in March. Myself and another student, Rebeca Gurrola from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, were selected to work with Adam Schultz, professor of geophysics at Oregon State. Originally, we were going to study the Cascade volcanoes in western Oregon, however, the stars aligned and Adam’s lab received funding from the NSF and a research permit from the National Park Service to carry out the Yellowstone project. So Rebeca and I ended up being a part of the Yellowstone field crew. 

What tools did you use to investigate them? We used a geophysical technique called magnetotellurics (MT). Geophysics is basically using physics to better understand the planet. In our case, you can think of it like taking an ultrasound of the Earth. Magnetotellurics is a technique that uses electrical and magnetic signals that naturally occur in the Earth as a result of solar flares from the sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. Using this, we can better understand how electrically conductive or resistive materials deep in the Earth are. Magma, fluids (like water), and metallic minerals conduct electricity very well, while rock doesn’t conduct electricity very well (it’s more resistive). Once we collect MT data, we can build computer models of the Earth’s interior that display this difference: hot, partially molten rock and fluids will appear as very conductive, and bedrock will usually appear as very resistive.     

What will the data that you collected be used for? These data will be used by Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a 3D computer model of the Yellowstone supervolcano. This model will include other geophysical data from seismic studies of Yellowstone, which use seismic waves to image the Earth’s interior. Rebeca and I created 2D models of Yellowstone, which we got the opportunity to present at the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in New Orleans this past December. 

Have you done other investigations as part of your university studies? Yes! Currently, as part of my senior research project, I’m mapping bedrock outcrops near the Saddleback Ridge Wind Project in Carthage with my professor Doug Reusch. I was also involved in high elevation pond research across the Maine mountains with my professor Julia Daly during summer 2016.  

Bryce Neal of New Gloucester is a senior at the University of Maine at Farmington where he is majoring in geology. He is shown here at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. (Submitted photo)

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