Probing – 04 Threats

Probing the Depths of Crater Lake: A Century of Scientific Research by Douglas Larson


The public tends to assume that once a threatened natural treasure like Crater Lake has been designated a national park, the threat is gone and the park is preserved forever in an unalterable state. The public may also assume that the Park Service is eternally vigilant, regularly testing the air, water, and soil for harmful contaminants and promoting basic research to better manage and protect the rare and fragile ecosystems comprising the National Park system. Further, the public may assume that the Park Service routinely operates with the spirit and dedication of men like William Steel and Clarence Dutton, who risked their reputations, savings, and even their lives to protect Crater Lake. At least in the case of Crater Lake, the history of sporadic, infrequent scientific research of the site-along with the Park Service’s failure to monitor the lake for eighty years-should be a hard lesson that America’s beloved national parks cannot be taken for granted.

The few scientists who studied Crater Lake before 1983 were essentially explorers seeking to make new scientific discoveries about lakes in general and Crater Lake in particular. Their work constituted basic research, aimed at probing the depths of an unknown world to reveal its limnological secrets. Their discoveries-like the esoteric observations recorded by astronomers peering at distant galaxies-probably had little practical or applied value. These researchers were simply curious about this unusual lake and wanted to explore it. W T. Edmondson, a renowned limnologist and professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Washington, defined basic research as an activity that “starts from some interesting condition or observation of a natural phenomenon and has as its goal an explanation of that phenomenon; there is no more specific goal at the beginning. The project may start from simple curiosity about the nature of the world and proceed stepwise from discovery to discovery, following wherever each leads.” (7)  Applied research, on the other hand, is goal-oriented, conducted to solve a specific problem, and is usually terminated when the problem is solved. Before proceeding with applied research, however, scientists require fundamental knowledge about the subject being investigated. This knowledge is obtained through basic research. Without it, applied research cannot be done effectively.

January 1949 was one of the rare years when Crater Lake froze over, shown here with Mount Scott in the background. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

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