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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, August 16, 2004

Kilauea ignites new research

Lava from Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island falls into the sea as dawn approaches. The long-running eruption has created not only a tourist spectacle but also a fertile ground for scientific study on the factors that shape how volcanic eruptions occur and continue.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

 •  Photo gallery

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

KA'U, Hawai'i — Don Swanson hurried across a pahoehoe lava field in the dark, lighting the way with a flashlight and keeping an eye on the fiery red glow of a fresh lava flow two miles ahead, oozing down a ridge scientists call Pulama Pali.

Don Swanson, the scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, walks over a lava field toward a fresh flow. Swanson has been studying Kilauea Volcano since 1968.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The breeze in his face carried a mix of smells, salt sea air and the distinctive odor of cooled lava with a hint of sulphur, but Swanson was focused on the marked trail.

He began studying the volcano in 1968 but Kilauea still presents Swanson, scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, with new puzzles. On this morning, lava emerged from subsurface tubes fed by Kilauea in an unexpected area, and Swanson hauled a backpack stuffed with camera equipment in at 4:40 a.m. to document the event.

This area of Ka'u is where Kilauea, with its unstoppable production of new land, meets an indifferent sea. It is at once an intriguing tourist attraction, and a place of scientific mystery.

Observatory scientists are using the latest global positioning technology to track ground movements, and are redesigning the field equipment that gathers data on gas emissions from the volcano. They are analyzing wave movements generated by earthquakes beneath the volcano, and will soon use radar signals from satellites to detect previously unrecorded ground movements.

And still, they struggle with the most basic, demanding questions, each tangled in complexities that defy simple answers: When will the next eruption rip open the surface of Mauna Loa, or Hualalai? When will the next big earthquake rattle walls and floors in Hilo and Kona? Why does lava burst out here instead of over there?

Beyond pure scientific curiosity, homes and lives are at stake both in Hawai'i and outside the state. Scientists studying Kilauea hope their work will eventually help prevent respiratory problems among Kona schoolchildren, trigger evacuations before boulders are launched by explosive volcanoes, and help curb earthquake damage in the Third World.

Kilauea's ongoing eruption, which began in 1983, has been the volcano's most voluminous in the past 500 years, providing scientists with vast opportunities to study earthquakes, lava, volcanic fumes and other phenomena.

Ideal site for study

Hawai'i's natural frontiers

Beginning today, The Advertiser will explore how Hawai'i has become a leader in scientific research when it comes to volcanoes, oceans and outer space.


World-class research conducted at Kilauea could help people in other regions.


Ocean research is a large and growing part of the state's cachet.


Hawai'i boasts of having the best sites for astronomy in the world. most likely to occur, if at all?

Thomas A. Jaggar founded the Hawai'i Volcano Observatory in 1911 because the Big Island volcanoes are relatively easy to reach with relatively little danger to scientists. That logic holds true today.

It also helps that in geologic terms, Big Island volcanoes move at lightning speed. "Things happen very quickly here," said Arnold Okamura, a recently retired observatory scientist. "The magma supply is large, such that processes that take ages, say, in the Aleutian volcanoes, occur very quickly here."

Kilauea also offers scientists a valuable, reasonably safe proving ground for testing and refining field equipment. Since 1995 Hawai'i scientists have built the best small regional network in the world of continuously operating global positioning system (GPS) equipment, which is used to measure movements in the earth caused by volcanic activity and related earthquakes.

Observatory scientists are also at work modifying the field equipment used to test the millions of tons of gases blasted out of the volcano's vents and caldera each year.

Observatory experts study those gases both for clues about what may be happening in the magma underground, and also as part of an effort to help determine possible health effects. Hawai'i is perhaps the best laboratory in the world for studying "vog," the emissions from the volcano, their make-up and their potential impacts on human health.

Carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and water vapor are all dissolved in magma, and each gas is released as pressure on the magma decreases as it approaches the surface. Jeff Sutton, geochemist for the observatory, said the process is much like pulling the cork on a champagne bottle and releasing the pressure in the bottle, which in turn releases dissolved carbon dioxide gas inside.

The pressure of those expanding, rising hot gasses then drives magma out, causing the volcano to ooze or sometimes fountain out of the vents. In some spectacular stages of the current eruption, lava from Kilauea has fountained more than 1,400 feet in the air.

A major challenge for scientists is how to accurately gauge how much magma is moving through the plumbing systems below the volcanoes at any given time. As scientists find better ways to accurately calculate the volume of lava and its patterns of movement, they hope to match that information up with other data such as earthquakes and ground swelling to more completely grasp how overall volcanic systems work.

But precise information about underground lava flows has proved extremely difficult to obtain. Gas monitoring is important because the volumes of gases vary with the amount of magma that erupts, so measuring the gases provides another way for scientists to measure the volume of lava being produced, Sutton said.

Suitcase-sized testing units have been set up in the summit caldera for the past several years to measure sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide at points in the plume every 10 minutes, transmitting the data back to the observatory by radio along with information about wind speed, wind direction and temperature.

The same instruments have also been installed at Pu'u O'o, but that is riskier: Some of that gear has disappeared in lava flows.

New tools tested

What Scientists do at the volcano

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory conducts an intensive program of seismic, gas, ground deformation, and observational monitoring of the frequently active volcanoes on the Island of Hawai'i.

What they watch for

Rising magma, which typically will:

• Trigger earthquakes and other types of seismic events.

• Cause swelling or subsidence of a volcano's summit or flanks.

• Lead to the release of volcanic gases from the ground and vents.

How they work

• As closely as possible to the active vent to observe and measure changes that often occur when magma rises to the surface.

• When a volcano shows signs of unrest or is erupting, they often make several visits a week to conduct surveys and install and maintain instruments that track activity 24 hours a day.

Where they work

• Often directly on the rugged slopes of the volcano to measure and observe changes in activity and to install and maintain a network of volcano-monitoring instruments.

Their questions

When the volcano begins to show new or unusual signs of activity, their monitoring data help them answer four critical questions for reducing the risk from volcanoes:

• Does the current unrest involve the movement of magma?

• If yes, when is an eruption most likely to occur, if at all?

• During an eruption, what real-time warnings are needed to prevent loss of life and property damage?

• When is an eruption really over?

Other questions:

The monitoring data they collect also helps address a variety of other important questions, including:

• What is the nature of a volcano's magma-reservoir system?

• What is the cause of specific volcano-seismic events?

• How do volcanic ash clouds disperse downwind of an erupting volcano?

• How susceptible to massive slope failures (landslides) are volcanoes?

Want to learn more?

Go to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Web site

Source: Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Now observatory scientists are working on a variation in the testing equipment they hope to field in the next few months that will scan the whole width of the gas plume and gather more comprehensive data.

"We can continuously — as long is the sun is up supplying sunlight to us — be able to measure the amount of lava that's coming out of the volcano. We've never been able to do that before," he said.

In another innovation, observatory scientists are adapting and refining a testing unit known as "Flyspec," a smaller spectrometer that is cheaper and faster, and will also be used to transmit data from remote locations.

That effort by the observatory and University of Hawai'i researchers will result in a continuous monitor that is smaller, cheaper and more affordable for developing countries, which may be a great benefit for places like Indonesia and South and Central America.

"It's not enough to understand it for your local system, the local neighborhood. We're supposed to be thinking globally here," Sutton said. "The tools that we develop here often get transferred to other volcanoes around the world, and that's part of our international responsibilities."

Sutton and colleague Tamar Elias are also co-investigators in a study of the exposure and health effects from volcanic emissions among school children.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies sulphur dioxide as a "priority" pollutant, a gas that is also released by industrial developments such as power plants that burn coal and fuel oil. It is the gas that causes acid rain.

The EPA intervenes to pressure major industrial polluters to clean up their operations if they generate 100 metric tons of sulphur dioxide a year. The volcano, by comparison, emits an average of more than 550,000 metric tons of sulphur dioxide a year, most of it from the active vent at Pu'u O'o, Sutton said.

By the time the normal tradewinds blow the emissions around the southern tip of the island and up the Kona coast, most of the sulphur dioxide has been converted to acid sulfate particles, essentially sulfuric acid particles. Worse, the particles are sized so that they can easily be inhaled into the lungs, Sutton said.

Emissions from the volcano exceeds the public health standard for the 24-hour average for sulphur dioxide pollution about a half-dozen times a year in East Hawai'i. By the time the fumes reach Kona, they are converted to acid sulfate particles, and there are no government standards specifically for acidic particles, Sutton said.

The experts at HVO provided expertise on where the winds tend to carry the emissions — primarily North and South Kona during tradewind weather — and helped establish particle monitoring sites around the island to collect data.

Preliminary findings released by principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Tam at the University of Hawai'i's John A. Burns School of Medicine last year, including the fact that nearly one in four Big Island children in the study reported being diagnosed with asthma, considerably more than the asthma rate of 13 percent statewide.

The $1.3 million National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study will continue through 2006, Tam said.

"A lot of people are concerned about the effects of volcanic emissions," Sutton said. "A whole generation of kids on the Big Island have grown up downwind of the volcano, and Hawai'i has one of the highest asthma rates in the nation, and the Big Island has the highest asthma rate in the state. There's lot there to suggest this is a problem worth looking at."

Tracking activity

Scientists have established the best small regional network of GPS receivers in the world to monitor Kilauea and Mauna Loa, with the instruments recording their position every 30 seconds so scientists can track tiny swelling or other deformations of the Earth's surface and deduce what is happening with the magma below ground.

"The reason why ground deformation is so important is that the volcano will tend to deform before it starts to break. In other words, you'll see the ground start to slowly move before you see earthquakes" that generally signal the beginning of an eruption, Okamura said. "When we start seeing an increase in earthquake activity, that means it can be imminent."

That is critical for watching volcanos such as Mauna Loa, which has been swelling since March 2002, but has not yet been rocked by earthquakes that would signal an eruption in the near future.

Scientists were able to use that understanding to accurately forecast the last eruption of Mauna Loa, announcing in October 1983 the volcano would soon burst to life. It did, in March 1984.

Since 1983 the amount of equipment such as GPS and tiltmeters that measure changes on the volcanoes has vastly increased on Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Hawai'i scientists pioneered the use of both tiltmeters that measure tilt on the Earth's surface and GPS instruments that continuously monitor the volcanoes. Now lessons learned in Hawai'i are being applied in places such as Alaska's Mount Spurr as the volcano there is apparently beginning to stir, said Peter Cervelli, a research geophysicist who worked at HVO and is now at the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

The additional detection devises help scientists pinpoint where eruption activity is centered.

Earthquake study

Scientists are also at work trying to describe how volcanic forces generate the thousands of earthquakes large and small that rumble beneath the Big Island.

The largest earthquake known to have occurred in Hawai'i was in 1868, and destroyed 100 structures and killed 77. Scientists today estimate is was a magnitude-7.9 quake, centered near the southern part of the Big Island, and it generated a tsunami that destroyed coastal villages.

Earthquakes ranging from 6.2 to 7.2 magnitude rocked the island from 1973 to 1989, causing nearly $17 million damage.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory seismologist Paul Okubo said he was drawn to studying earthquakes as an engineering student at Princeton in the early 1970s, when a large earthquake shook portions of Central America. The event caught some attention on campus, where the quake was picked up by an on-campus seismograph.

It was particularly intriguing to Okubo, who was a sophomore studying civil engineering at the time, and he took up geophysical seismology in his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Lives were lost, buildings were damaged, and wasn't there something that could be done about it?" he said. "The Holy Grail is predicting earthquakes, but from an engineering point of view, can you design better buildings, can you understand the effects of earthquakes?"

Recent research has also revealed some frightening powers that Kilauea possesses, but has rarely displayed in recent history.

Scientists have long known Kilauea had a history of unleashing violent explosions, blasts that have made it the most lethal active volcano in the United States.

Kilauea earned that distinction in about 1790, when steam explosions near the summit killed somewhere between 80 and 800 Hawaiian warriors traveling through the area in a spectacularly unlucky attempt to attack the forces of Kamehameha I in Ka'u. By comparison, Mount St. Helens in Washington killed 57 people in its explosive eruption.

Although most people don't associate Kilauea with violent explosions, Swanson said Kilauea explodes "every several hundred years." Blasts in 1924 killed one person and injured several others. More recently, similar explosions at the Pu'u O'o vent in 1987, 1991 and 1996 scattered rocks across the cone in outbursts that could have been deadly for anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.

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Photo gallery

The sun rises over clouds of steam emanating from fissures in the Kilauea caldera.
Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Don Swanson, chief scientist at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, sets up his camera during one of his daily trips to the coast to check lava flows.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Lava enters the ocean in this photo from the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

Above: Jeff Sutton displays the Flyspec Sulfur Dioxide measurement device, which measures sulfur dioxide emissions in gas clouds emanating from volcanic activity.

Right: Geochemist Ian Kowalczyk adjusts the vehicle-mounted device prior to use.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

A road sign takes on a new meaning thanks to a lava flow.
Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

A map in the Jaggar Museum displays various lava flows in recent years.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser