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What's in the Water? Scientist Honored for Work at Crater Lake National Park


An aerial view of Crater Lake in winter. NPS photo.

There's no question the stunningly blue water inside the caldera at Crater Lake National Park is a vital park resource, so when scientists began wondering some years ago if the water was becoming less transparent—and why—researchers went to work.

Three decades later, one of those scientists is being honored by the non-profit Crater Lake Institute with that organization's Excellence in Research Award. The recipient is N. Stan Geiger from Portland, Oregon, and he's being recognized for his pioneering research on algae in the famous lake.

Geiger was approached in the fall 1978 by a fellow scientist, Dr. Doug Larson, with a request to assist with the analysis of a few algae samples from Crater Lake. Larson was exploring reasons for the reported diminished transparency of the lake, and thought algae (phytoplankton) might be the cause. At that time Geiger was working in Portland, Oregon, on the analysis of algae samples from the Columbia River in the vicinity of the Trojan nuclear power plant and elsewhere from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.

Geiger agreed to help, even though most of the work was unfunded, and the efforts took place in the evenings in Portland. By the time the work ended in 1980, those "few algae samples" numbered 390.

In March of 1980 Geiger and Larson submitted a grant application to Mazamas (a mountain climbing club based out of Portland, Oregon) for $518 to do some late stage scanning electron microscopy of selected puzzling species, additional field work at Crater Lake, and some graphics work for later publications. The work was funded and a report, "Crater Lake: Its Planktonic Algae," was published in the group's journal Mazama in 1981.

The data generated by the analysis of the 390 samples, along with the physical and chemical data collected by Larson, provided the basis for presentations at several scientific conferences and for additional publications.

The pair's work soon led to wider interest with both scientific and political ramifications when they suggested that diminished lake transparency was due "to the vertical distribution of various species of algae whose growth was perhaps stimulated by a faulty sewerage system near the rim of the lake."

The result was legislation (Public Law 97-250) mandating the NPS to gather and analyze information about the water in the lake. Both Geiger and Larson were hired by Crater Lake National Park to assist with early work on the first 10-year monitoring program. Geiger analyzed samples from the lake collected in 1982 and 1983 and produced the Pilot Photo Atlas, Crater Lake Phytoplankton for the NPS in 1983.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) took an interest in Crater Lake and invited presentations on Crater Lake at its 69th annual meeting in 1988. Geiger and Larson made presentations at the gathering and subsequently produced three papers which appeared in the 1990 AAAS publication, Crater Lake: An Ecosystem Study.

The connection between algae, water transparency and sewage treatment at the park has continued to be a subject of some debate, and the federally mandated NPS monitoring program is continuing. It's currently in its third 10-year phase.

Geiger’s work on the analysis of algae samples from Larson’s sampling of Crater Lake was not the first time scientists had examined the lake waters for algae, but it's certainly the most comprehensive. Earlier work in 1924 noted only two species of algae in the lake, and while others subsequently made good but brief preliminary efforts to characterize the algae of waters at Crater Lake, they added only a few more names to the microscopic algae list.

According to the Institute, "the samples obtained by Larson and analyzed by Geiger was the first systematic seasonal and multi-year assessment of the vertical distribution of algae species in Crater Lake. Five divisions of algae comprising 140 species were identified in samples from 1978, 1979 and 1980."

The Crater Lake Institute is "comprised of distinguished scientists, former National Park Service employees, and other Friends of this unique caldera lake who are dedicated to the conservation biology of Crater Lake National Park's natural resources. The organization has made similar awards since 2002 to scientists and others who have contributed original knowledge through their research about Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, and its environment within Oregon's only National Park. Among those previously honored were Douglas W. Larson in 2002; Charles R. Bacon in 2003, and John L. Dobson in 2004."


Nice write-up Jim. Just one thing - The $518 grant was from the Mazamas (not from our group, the Crater Lake Institute (CLI)), a mountain climbing club based out of Portland, OR, and the article was published in their journal. William Steel, the father of Crater Lake NP, was a founding member of the Mazamas and this group had a strong impact on the park's early history. We were very proud to honor Stan with our award for all his hard work. Thanks again for the article Jim. The Traveler is doing great work! Rob :o)

The suggestion by Larson and Geiger that phytoplankton may be responding to nutirent input from sewage seepage from Rim Village might not have become such a politically hot topic had it not been for the fact that the park had just been closed to the public by the CDC during the summer of 1975, due to sewage contamination of the park's drinking water supply. Nevertheless, this research eventually led to the Congressionally funded long-term NPS research and monitoring program at Crater Lake.

More details can be read at

The debate between these researchers and others, including the NPS, about the possible reasons for the apparent loss of lake transparency is also documented in Crater Lake National Park: A History. By Rick Harmon. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. 280 pp.

Ron -

Thanks for the correction about the Mazamas grant and journal. Sorry about the error; I've made a correction in the article.

My early memory of visiting old Crater Lake Lodge and the Garfield Peak Trail during the 1961-64 period
is marked by the horrible odor/stench of the Lodge's overflowing septic system below the beginning portion
of the Garfield Pk. Trail. No one has any estimate how many thousands of gallons of Lodge septic sewerage
overflowed, infiltrated and seeped deeply into the pumice soils less than 100 ft. from the caldera's edge.
What portion may have entered pristine lake waters ?
The 1975 incident of contaminated drinkng water resulting in park closure for three weeks
(beginning July 11, 1975) was the result of the NPS Denver Service Center personnel allowing the
Rim Village sewer system to be placed above the surface spring called Munson within the
horseshoe curve above Park HQ, Thus, INSURING FUTURE drinking water contamination via gravity
sewerage leakage. This sewer system was a replacement for the old Lodge septic system which
probably never functioned well considering the large volumes of sewerage waste water during the summer
visitor seasons. Crater Lake is too important a global clean freshwater lake resource to allow the NPS
alone to manage without vigilant volunteer, outsider-watchdogs on patrol.
The silver-lining to these historic water contamination stormy stories was the implementation of a
Crater Lake water monitoring protocol and NPS-wide drinking water testing program.

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