Probing the Depths of Crater Lake: A Century of Scientific Research by Douglas Larson
The discoveries about Crater Lake, coming in piecemeal fashion over an eighty-year period, were significant for two reasons. First, the research that led to these discoveries advanced scientific understanding of lake ecology, in this case the ecology of an abysmally deep and extremely clear lake. Second, informed of the discoveries through scientific reports and other publications, the National Park Service and the public became aware of the lake’s uniqueness as well as its vulnerability to human encroachment. Early discoveries by Clarence Dutton and William Steel-concerning the lake’s volcanic origin, its great depth, and its strikingly clear, blue water-emphasized to Congress and the public why the lake should be preserved as a national park. This awareness, growing over the course of scientific inquiry, prompted Congress and the public to demand an investigation of the sewage problem in the 1980s. Without that awareness, the public might not have questioned, or even noticed, the decline and eventual loss of the lake’s rare limnological attributes.
In November 1976, at the First Conference on Scientific Research in the National Parks, the director of the National Park Service, Gary Everhardt, offered these remarks in his keynote address:
. . . management’s role is to evaluate information and make distinctions. We need the information that only science can afford. And public awareness of environmental imperatives is forcing management’s hand. If we dig a sewer to serve our visitor loads and happen to hit a wrong soil or rock, we’re hauled into the courts-those hallowed halls of justice where good intentions get no brownie points and ignorance is no excuse. . . . It is the duty of management to perceive and assess correctly the problems faced in the parks. . . .[and it is] management’s continued responsibility to pose appropriate questions for research. It is the duty of research scientists to move quickly at this point. . . to answer management’s questions, to identify . . . alternatives, . . . and then to assess scientifically the impact of implementing the action plan chosen. . . .”
But science, as Everhardt envisioned it, is not merely a handy tool for solving resource-management problems in the National Park Service. Science has a more farsighted role to play. The scientists who explored Crater Lake during the early twentieth century inspired other scientists to follow. Their discoveries revealed the lake’s singular nature and motivated Congress and the public to give Crater Lake special protection. From the 1880s, when Clarence Dutton and W G. Steel explored the lake’s geology in a canvas boat, until today, when limnologists are using submarines to probe the lake’s depths, Crater Lake has piqued scientists’ curiosity and caused them to wonder at its beauty. The story of their work is one that is worth telling.