MYSTIC — A remotely operated vehicle, designed and built by a local nonprofit, spent three weeks this summer exploring the depths of Yellowstone Lake.
Through the exploration, the robot, nicknamed Yogi by its creators at the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE) based in Mystic, provided scientists and researchers with views of volcanic vents, 20-foot tall rock spires and unique creatures at the bottom of the lake.
Earlier in the year, GFOE raised more than $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to fund the construction of the robot, which was named Yogi in honor of the cartoon bear who lived in the fictional version of Yellowstone Park.
In August, the GFOE team, a group of researchers and Yogi spent three weeks exploring the lake in an effort to better understand how earthquakes, volcanic processes and the climate affect the hydrothermal systems beneath the lake. The lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America and between its 800-foot altitude and 400-foot lake depth, looking at the bottom is not within the average diver’s ability, hence the need for a robot.
A large part of Yellowstone Park lies within the Yellowstone Caldera and is full of boiling mud pots, hot springs, and geysers, all of which are indicators of the extreme volcanic processes happening at the bottom of the lake.
“Yogi provides scientists and the Park with unprecedented opportunities to study Yellowstone Lake,” GFOE President Dave Lovalvo said in a release. “With its high-definition video cameras and modern sampling capabilities, we can now assist researchers in collecting information about this unique environment that, in the past, has been very difficult to get to.”
The organisms living at these depths are of interest to the science community because they can help researchers and scientists understand their very advanced capabilities and how they relate to health issues such as cancer, AIDS, the Ebola virus and other diseases.
“There are hydrothermal vents in the Lake that host unique microscopic organisms that could have beneficial applications to human health,” he said. “Scientists think that because some of these organisms live in temperatures comparable to those inside the human body, studying their physiological processes could lead to more effective treatments for cancer and other diseases. There is a lot left to learn.”
Through the study of a microbe called sulfolobus, found in the thermal features of Yellowstone National Park, scientists are gaining an understanding of the AIDS virus, Vice President Melissa Ryan said.
Another enzyme produced by Yellowstone microbes led to the creation of a diagnostic tool for detecting infectious diseases such as Ebola.
“The lakes have never commanded very much support, and certainly not the same amount of support we see for the deep ocean,” said Lovalvo. “This was one of the first times we’ve seen a deep ocean capability miniaturized and duplicated for the study of an inland lake. That’s pretty special. We’ve created a capability that can advance the understanding of unique features of Yellowstone Lake.”
In 1985, Lovalvo had his first opportunity bringing underwater robotic technology to the lake to study hydrothermal activity at depths beyond what’s possible with standard diving techniques.
“We’ve gathered lots of data, and it takes a while for researchers to analyze it. Sometimes our greatest discoveries are not immediately obvious. There are so many things of value in these hydrothermal ecosystems, like microbes, that can’t be seen with the naked eye.”
Yogi is a scaled-down version of technology that GFOE engineers previously developed to explore deep waters.
GFOE is made up of engineers and explorers who focus mainly on designing, building and operating equipment that films and takes samples from the bottom of the ocean. A partnership with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research has also allowed the nonprofit’s team to build and operate robots that are capable of exploring at depths of more than three and a half miles.