Probing the Depths of Crater Lake: A Century of Scientific Research by Douglas Larson
One can only speculate about the Park Service’s motives and reasoning. Park Service officials may have been complacent about the lake’s vulnerability to human encroachment, particularly during the park’s first forty-five years of existence when only about seventy-five thousand people visited the lake each year. Perhaps no one could imagine that people touring the caldera rim five hundred to a thousand feet above the lake posed a serious threat to lake quality Perhaps, too, the Park Service believed that the lake was large enough to assimilate various pollutants without harmful effects, thus precluding the need for monitoring. This complacency is evident in the Park Service’s decision during the 1940s to locate the park’s septic tank-drainfield system directly on the caldera rim, about seven hundred feet above the surface of the lake in soils that the USGS describes as “so highly permeable that in places all precipitation infiltrates where it falls.”
There were other factors that can also explain why scientific research at Crater Lake was limited. The field of limnology was a relatively small and highly specialized discipline during the first half of the twentieth century, with limnological research confined largely to eastern and Midwestern states, particularly New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Even there, few lakes were studied. W. T. Edmondson reported in 1966 that little was known about the limnology of natural lakes in the Pacific Northwest and California. In fact, only a handful of lakes had ever been studied, including Lake Washington in Seattle, alkaline lakes in Washington’s Lower Grand Coulee, Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon, and Crater Lake. (51) During the 1960s, however, the number of limnologists, oceanographers, and other aquatic specialists increased considerably as the United States invested heavily in scientific research and training to compete with the Soviet Union. This, coupled with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, resulted in a plethora of lake studies nationwide. In the Pacific Northwest, limnologists and other scientists began to take interest in the unique qualities of Crater Lake.
The lake’s near inaccessibility and great depth also hindered research. The lake was reached by a single, tortuous trail that switchbacked down the steep caldera wall for roughly one mile. Sensitive limnological equipment and other gear had to be transported up and down the trail on a motorized trail packer, which was not always available. Weather conditions were occasionally unfavorable and even dangerous. Winter research was not even attempted until 1971, when oceanographers from Oregon State University risked avalanches and hypothermia to collect wintertime limnological data. Expensive oceanographic equipment was often needed to probe the lake’s depths and collect samples. These conditions, in addition to the fact that the Park Service did not provide funding for lake research until 1983, discouraged many scientists from studying the lake.