Welcome (back) to Paradise!

12 08 2009

Hello and welcome to the 2nd edition of VolcanoSummer – Hawai`i! This year brings a much shorter visit to the Big Island and a somewhat familiar agenda, with exciting new faces and places added for your viewing pleasure. I arrived in Hilo via Honolulu on Sunday and was promptly met by the excellent Dr. Mark Kurz of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and his nephew, David Kurz. We acquired the soon-to-be Dr. Brent Goehring of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and made the familiar trek up to Volcano, Hawai`i. This is the town outside of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, where our research group has rented two lovely houses for the duration of our expedition. We settled in to discuss the trip and await the arrival of the remaining members of our science party, Dr. Joe Licciardi of the University of New Hampshire and Shasta Marrero and Michelle Hinz of New Mexico Tech. Check out our awesome group!


Our group was assembled to perform calibration work for the CRONUS-Earth Project using Mauna Loa lava flows. CRONUS is an international effort by geoscientists to use cosmogenic isotopes in dating many types of geologic features around the world. You may be scratching your head and wondering what the heck a cosmogenic isotope is, so I’ll give you the short version. The sun continually bombards the Earth with cosmic rays, and when some of these rays strike the ground they interact with certain elements contained in the rock. These interactions cause the elements to change into a slightly different version of themselves known as an isotope. You may be familiar with the concept of Carbon-14 dating, where scientists employ analysis of an isotope of carbon in order to date how old something is. CRONUS uses similar concepts but with rocks instead of carbon-based samples.

We are here in Hawai`i as part of an effort to determine just how accurate cosmogenic isotope dating methods can be. We are sampling lava from flows that we already know the ages of, whether through Carbon-14 dating of burned plant material (charcoal) or from historical accounts. The samples will be sent to laboratories for analysis, and we’ll be able to clearly see how accurate this dating method is. The benefit of cosmogenic isotope dating is that we are not limited as severely as we are with Carbon-14, and much older ages may be obtained. Basically, I’m hanging out with a bunch of geochemists who are into travelling the world and ascertaining the ages of various geologic features such as lava flows and landslides. It’s all in the name of science!

Ok, so that’s the detailed stuff. Let’s move on to the part you’ve all been waiting for: pictures!

Lava Ball the First

In this photo Mark, Brent, and Shasta are debating the merits of sampling from this particular lava ball. They’re standing on a roughly 900 year old Mauna Loa a`a lava flow. Site selection is key to our undertaking, as anything that could shield the rocks from the cosmic rays will throw off the dating technique. Also, the surface that is selected for sampling has to be the rock’s original surface. Erosion wears rocks down, and that type of material loss would make the rock appear younger than it actually is since the sun’s rays would have bombarded the eroded surface for less time. Scientists also like to use site selection as a means to argue amongst themselves. (No scientists were harmed in the making of that joke, FYI.) In the foreground of the picture you’ll find a 6lb sledgehammer, which can be used for sample collection or warding off greedy competing scientists. In the back right of the picture you can see Kilauea’s summit plume, which repeat readers may remember from last year. The summit eruption is indeed still going, in case anyone was wondering.

Plume Backwards

Hurricane Felicia never materialized by HVO, but the typical tradewinds were affected enough to cause the plume to blow in the direction opposite its normal route. Seeing the plume is like having a giant (and intensely awesome) welcome mat rolled out in greeting. The vent has increased substantially in size since I left HVO last September, and it now spans approximately 130 meters. To put it in perspective, that’s larger than a football field. Amazing.

I’m about to fall asleep while typing, so this’ll conclude tonight’s post.

P.S. – It’s great to be back!

Neverending summer.

15 09 2008

Well, I have some excellent news that I’ve been keeping under wraps for quite some time since I didn’t want to jinx it. A few weeks ago my boss at HVO mentioned that a scientist friend of his from Woods Hole asked him to join a scientific research cruise to the Loihi Seamount. Since Loihi is definitely something I’d like to research in the future, I promptly freaked out. I demanded to know what his reply was, and he told me that he’d been there, done that. I informed him that he was nuts. To that, he asked if I wanted to go. Cue another freak out.

My amazing boss then put in a good word for me with the scientist, and after an interview and much airline and school wrangling…I’m going on a research cruise! That means that instead of leaving here tomorrow to return to California, next Sunday I fly to Oahu. I’ll meet up with the boat and we’ll depart on Monday, 9/22. We’ll return to port on October 12, and I’ll fly back to California the next day. That’s about three weeks at sea! Since marine geology is what really butters my bread, this is one of my strongest dreams come true. Now, here are the details.

The cruise is actually going out under the auspices of the FeMO Iron Microbial Observatory at Loihi Volcano. The boat is the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, a NOAA-owned and University of Washington-operated vessel. If you click the ship’s link you can see all of the details, including the berthing setup. I’ll be in berth #35! Excitement. If you read the FeMO link, you know that they primarily study biology. I will most likely help out with that, but I’m there for an experiment in sampling volcanic glasses. My boss on the ship is from WHOI, as I mentioned before. That’s not all of the awesomeness, oh no. It gets better.

I assume most of the people who read this blog have watched the Discovery Channel at some point. Many of you may have heard of the ROV Jason. I certainly had, and using ROV and submersibles to do research was another of my life’s goals. You can guess where I’m going with this, can’t you? Jason will be on board, and we’re using him to collect the samples. Absolutely incredible. Words just can’t do justice to how amazing this whole summer has been (and continues to be).

I think this is an appropriate time to thank the people who’ve made it all possible. Thank you to my parents, for obvious reasons, and because they’re the best parents anyone could ever have. They gave me chemistry sets and helped me with science fair projects since as early as I can remember. Thank you to my professors at California State University – Los Angeles, and in particular Dr. Kim Bishop. They are magnanimous enough to allow me to make up the coursework I’ll miss while on the cruise, and Dr. Bishop is taking over my teaching duties while I am gone. Thank you to everyone who reads this journal, whether I know you in real life or not. You have made documenting this journey of a lifetime a true pleasure. If you have specific questions you’d like answered, please leave them in the comments of this post. It’s often hard for me to go back and pick the questions out from the comments, so let me know what you’d like answered!

Ok, just so this post isn’t all texts n’ links, here’s a picture of the R/V Thompson!

At The Edge Of Oblivion

3 09 2008

Today I did another amazing thing. I suppose if I keep calling everything I do amazing people won’t know how to distinguish daily stuff from special stuff. Either that or you’ll all become geologists! My evil plan will finally come to fruition!

Ok, in all seriousness I did something incredible. So you know the vent in Halema`uma`u I keep writing about? Today I helped install a time-lapse camera where the red dot in this photo is located. Keep in mind that the dot is about the size of 3 adults standing right next to each other, and make sure you click to see the full view of the image.

We also walked all along the rim on either side of that dot to perform maintenance on the ash-catching stations we have set up. I was directly over the vent and it was thrilling.

Here you can see the initial setup phase with the monster sulfur dioxide plume in the background. That’s the tripod.

Here’s the conversation I had with the geologist in that photo just seconds after I snapped the pic.

Him: “Hey, do you hear those loud banging noises from the vent?”
Me: “Yeah! They’re so loud! It’s amazing.”
Him: “If you hear a particularly loud one, get ready to run.”
Me: “Oh, right. Rocks can be ejected.”
Him: “You do realize that we could die, right?”
Me: “Yep!”
Him: “Ok, can you hand me those pliers over there?”

Not your average conversation at the office, was it? Let’s just say I pondered my time on this mortal coil for a minute whilst gazing into the swirling maw of Hell.

Maybe I should take up modelling hard hats? Anyway, here’s the end product of our efforts:

In the foreground you can see the solar panel that is responsible for powering the camera. The grey case on the ground is the battery, and the camera is in the open case on the tripod. The camera case lid is shut once we’re done adjusting it. The reason we installed it is that the vent has been growing. The lip and side walls have been collapsing quite a bit lately, so that first picture in this post actually shows the vent even smaller than it is now.

The noises issuing from the vent were otherworldly. I now understand perfectly why ancient Greeks and Romans believed that Hephaestus or Vulcan, respectively, was hammering away inside of the volcanoes. It honestly sounds like someone is forging things in the traditional hammer-and-anvil way. The booms are loud, metallic, and frequent. Sometimes it sounds like metallic popcorn, and other times it sounds like the resonating, drawn out intonation of a gong. It’s not always noisy like this. In fact, everyone is remarking on how unusual the noises actually are. I feel privileged to have heard them.

For those who are curious, I threw several rocks into the vent. I stopped after it belched out a massive plume that immediately blew in our direction. Making Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, angry while perched on the lip of the vent was not on my To Do List for today.

Also of note: Both my photography and my person are present on the official HVO website! Visit the Kilauea Eruption Update page on HVO’s site to take a look. August 28th is the magic date. Those of you keeping up with the blog will recognize some of the images! The Quicktime video from August 31 is definitely worth a watch, too.

Helicopter fun!

1 09 2008

On Thursday I went on a geology overflight to Kupaianaha and Pu`u O`o. This area of Kilauea is in its 24th year of eruption. Pu`u O`o is a parasitic cinder cone on the flank of Kilauea, and Kupaianaha is a shield that has formed 3km down from Pu`u` O`o.

The first part of the flight consisted of travelling down the path of the flows towards the current ocean entry.

This is a view to the northeast. The older flows are darker, and the younger flows are silvery.

This is the ocean entry plume shot from above. The lava is pouring into the ocean from a lava tube that is just under the hardened surface flows. The plume is poisonous sulfur dioxide gas (SO2).

Here’s a shot of the plume as we were flying away. Helicopters can induce some funky camera angles.

The helicopter dropped us off further up the flow field so that we could take some measurements. Two of my colleagues are performing Total station measurements with Pu`u O`o in the background. These measurements help us to determine how the ground around the active lava flows and lava tubes is deforming. We can measure elevation change and distances, among other things.

After we finished with the Total station, we hiked towards Pu`u O`o to map a new seep of “toothpaste” lava. This texture of lava is considered to be a transitional stage between smooth pahoehoe and rough a`a flows. We use GPS tracklogging and walk along the boundary of the seep to create the map. That’s what I’m doing here.

The lava seep is from just a few months ago, so the lava itself has an interesting array of colors and textures. There are many small vents of hot SO2 that waft up from beneath where we were standing. I was examining some of the textures and enjoying the warmth of my own volcanic sauna.

After we mapped the boundaries of the seep, we measured the thickness of the seep itself. I was holding the base of the tape measure and recording the data.

The helicopter met us after a few hours and flew us over Pu`u O`o for a look at the current eruption. For those of you waiting anxiously for the smoking cone, here you go!

Of course, this doesn’t provide a good perspective of how large Pu`u O`o really is. That’s why I’m including this image as well.

Those very small, silver dots near the rim in the foreground? Those are our measurement stations. They’re about the size of an average adult. Yes, Pu`u O`o is large. Flying over it was incredible.

I hope everyone is having a wonderfully restful long weekend!

The original burning ring of fire.

13 08 2008

Today was utterly amazing. I went with one of HVO’s Kilauea research geologists to the active lava flow field to map the new surface flows, perform a hazard assessment, and collect a sample. After we made the hour drive to the flow field we hiked across some of the miles of lava flows near the lava’s ocean entry. We were greeted with this:

That’s a skylight, which is essentially a hole with a view into a lava tube. Here’s a close up.

It’s hard to discern in this picture, but there was a veritable river of lava rushing past. The bright orange at the center is, in fact, lava. The area surrounding the tube is all flow that has issued within the last day or so.

That wasn’t enough lava for us, however. We continued hiking across the flow field until we found an active surface flow. That’s when things turned violent…for the lava, that is.

Hey, I had to attack it with a hammer before it attacked me, right? In actuality, this is how we collect samples from slow-moving surface flows. After you use the rock hammer to grab some lava, you toss it in a bucket with some water to quench it and make it safe to handle.

That picture is unfortunately a bit blurry, but it demonstrates the elasticity of the molten lava. The lava that I’m up close and personal with in these pictures is approximately 1000 degrees Celsius. That translates to 1832 degrees Fahrenheit for those of us from the United States. The extreme heat radiating from the flow is the reason I’m wearing those silver gloves and the stylish balaclava. I have my hand up to my eyes to shield them from the heat as well. It was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Every atom of my body was enveloped by the invisible heat waves from that molten rock. Incredible.

This shot gives a better perspective of the shapes a pahoehoe flow can take.

I decided that the lava was ready for its close up.

After the necessary sample was safely quenched and packed away for later analysis, we hiked back across the flow field in order to map the newest surface flow with potential to threaten people. We used GPS to map it, and then headed into the forested kipuka. I probably ought to mention that the lava had was flowing through the kipuka and burning the forest.

The lava was setting fire to everything in its reach, and the flames were travelling up downed tree branches and grasses. Small methane explosions were nearly constant, so we couldn’t get too close to the kipuka flows. This begs the question of what to do when you encounter a lava flow that is in the process of burning a forest. Well, I am happy to report that I have the answer.

Why, you poke it with a stick of course! Nothing teaches unruly lava to behave quite like jabbing it with a stick.

I think it’s safe to say that this was one of the greatest days of my life.

Adventures in liquid hot magma!

12 08 2008

Ok, I’m lying a bit while referencing Austin Powers. I haven’t played with active lava…YET. Tomorrow we’re going to the active flow field and I’ll hopefully get to poke lava with a stick. Here are some pictures of the lava flows from Sunday to tide you over until I have an adventure to relate!

Here’s a lava pool on Kilauea’s flank called the Thanksgiving Eve Breakout (TEB) vent.

Here’s a flow issuing from TEB.

Bear in mind that these aren’t my photos, but rather pictures taken by one of our geologists on a helicopter overflight. I’ll have a much different perspective tomorrow…up close and personal, I hope!

On the level.

6 08 2008

My last 3 days of work have been out in the field. We’re in the midst of a levelling campaign here at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. It is by far the most expensive data collection that is undertaken here in terms of sheer man-hours, and it’s not easy to execute. We’ve gone out in crews of 4 or 5 for the last week to take measurements on different “level lines,” (pre-measured routes) around Kilauea. After the data has been collected it is compared to last year’s data to detect any changes in the surface of the volcano. It’s known as dry-tilt, or single-setup levelling. SSL is the more correct name for what we’ve been doing.

The most exciting part of the whole process for me has been the location. I finally had the opportunity to go into the sections of Kilauea’s caldera that have been closed to the public since the March explosion events. Here’s the plume from nearly underneath of it.

Who thought that poisonous gas could look so beautiful? Due to the lethally high concentrations of sulfur dioxide in the plume’s immediate vicinity, we have to wear something special to do any field work nearby.

Now THAT is a fashion statement. I tried in vain to stop myself from saying, “Luke, I am your father!” repeatedly. The gas masks filter enough noxious fumes to allow us to work in SO2 concentrations up to 10 times the levels considered safe for breathing. The parking area behind me has been closed since the March explosions. It is coated with a fine layer of explosive materials now. That’s the HVO Deformation Group truck in the background.

Here is my levelling crew from today. We were right next to Halema`uma`u’s open vent, which is the origin of the plume. It was incredible.

Here’s one more shot of the amazing gas mask getup for good measure. We have to wear the helmets in case another explosive event occurs. The first notable one since April happened last Friday, so the safety precautions are certainly necessary.

Ashley and I aren’t phased by the volcano behind us, however. We’re still sending that Aloha spirit your way!

Fun with Gravity!

1 08 2008

Last Friday I helped one of my colleagues with a gravity survey of Kilauea. He’s measuring the gravity in several specific pre-determined areas around the volcano to determine if there’s a correlation between gravity changes and eruptions. Pretty cool. Behold, the Graviton EG!

This is a self-levelling electronic gravimeter. There are only a few of these in the world, so we’re renting this one from the University of Wisconsin. Yeah, I have no idea why they have one and the US Government doesn’t. Hmm. What’s going on up there, Wisconsin?

One of our stops was next to Kilauea Iki, a collapse crater off of Kilauea’s main caldera. In 1959 it erupted and formed a spectacular lava fountain between 180-240 feet high. Now you can walk across the remnants of the fiery lava lake. You can see the trail in the middle of this picture.

Here’s a picture of my gravimetry-loving Italian colleague. This picture has all sorts of cool stuff going on. Not only is he displaying the coveted USGS orange shirt, he’s also standing next to the Graviton, a USGS benchmark, our beast of a work truck, and you can see the plume from Kilauea’s current eruption behind the truck. Pretty freakin’ sweet. Also, notice the fine footwear on display. Hah. The gravity benchmarks are all near the road, so no hiking required. We generally wear industrial work boots.

Oh yeah, did I mention that I was driving? Yep. It’s a scientific fact that the bigger the truck, the more fun it is to drive…especially when you go off-road.

We ended the day by the Hilina Pali trailhead. I think the views speak for themselves.

Talk about a great end to the day. This is why geology is so much better than everything else. Hehe.

Everything except for poking it with a stick.

24 07 2008

Tonight after normal work hours I was trained how to monitor the vent at Halema`uma`u. Ever since the caldera explosions earlier this year, HVO has had staff members watching the vent around the clock. The explosions have been at night, so it’s critical to have someone monitoring it constantly. However, monitoring an active vent isn’t as simple as sitting and staring at it.

There are several measurements geologists, seismologists, and geophysicists use to forecast eruptive activity and study an active volcano. Some of these measurable factors include earthquakes/seismicity, vent temperature, and tilt (deformation).

Seismicity and earthquakes help us see the frequency and characteristics of movement inside the earth. Some earthquakes are very shallow and originate within the volcano, oftentimes near the magma chamber. Other earthquakes are deep and come from the earth’s mantle, more than 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) below the surface. We’re concerned with the shallow ones, since they often occur in “swarms” before a volcanic eruption. Tonight I learned how to examine a seismograph and earthquake data to determine if significant eruption activity is happening.

We constantly monitor the temperature of the sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas that Halema`uma`u emits. Temperature spikes can indicate changes in vent activity, or just changes in the weather. You have to pay attention to see what is significant.

Another of the things that we monitor closely is called deformation. We use electronic tiltmeters that are semi-permanently or permanently located all around the island to measure changes in the slope of various locations. If the slope of an area increases steadily, it can indicate that the magma chamber is filling up. This can mean that an eruption is in the near future. It doesn’t always, however, so we have to make sure that we see a definite trend or we’ll be caught crying wolf. Here’s a really cool example of how volcanologists used tilt to track Kilauea’s past eruptions.

There’s more than this to monitoring, but it’s late and I have a field excursion tomorrow! It’s going to be very low-impact, since I’m still 2 days away from medical clearance to resume hardcore field work. I’m housesitting for another volcanologist now, and this one has eight cats. It’s quite a bit different than watching the two dogs at the other house! Word has gone around the office that I used to be a vet tech, so my pet-sitting skills are proving helpful to members of the staff who want their vacations.

Just so you don’t feel deprived, here’s a picture of the ocean entry plume from last week. Tomorrow will bring new and exciting pictures of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and the Kona coast, provided the weather decides to cooperate. We’re catching the rain from a passing tropical storm, and it’s quite wet right now. Anyway, the plume awaits!

Office work for the glory of science!

22 07 2008

Having an injury while in Hawai`i for a summer of outdoor research is definitely a drag. Even my meager plans to go snorkeling last weekend were derailed by rainstorms. My boss wouldn’t let me go to the ocean entry tonight because I’m not medically cleared until this Friday. ((Sigh))

To say that desk work is frustrating doesn’t begin to convey today’s small agonies. I’m attempting to georeference new and improved satellite photography for our mapping project. I am using a program called ArcGIS, and its offshoot known as ArcMap, to compare the old satellite imagery with the new. Unfortunately, the new images come to me as 1 kilometer squares with absolutely no reference points (aside from their topographic features). I have to place the new image over several older ones and then compare distinctive features to link the images up. Imagine trying to take two different tracings and line them up as closely as possible by stitching them together. It’s a very time-intensive job, since you have to look for the smallest recognizable features to stitch in order to make an accurate map.

I spent 5 hours working on one quadrant (Mauna Loa’s summit and the NOAA Weather Observatory on its flank). Guess what happened? Yes, the computer lost the data. 26 meticulously georeferenced points. 5 hours of beating the thing into submission, and all for naught. ARGH. I will conquer it tomorrow, I swear.

Here’s a sample of the type of images I’m working with. The Big Island is 10,432 square kilometers. Each image I work with is one kilometer. You can see how this would take quite a while.

Since I haven’t posted one of these before, this shows how much of the Big Island’s surface area is covered by its various volcanoes. Mauna Loa is huge, and covers 51% of the island. Remember that Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea are the only 3 active volcanoes. Hualalai has been dormant for some time, and doesn’t have much eruptive capability left. Kilauea is always erupting (these days) and is the current star of the show. However, the amount of lava produced by Kilauea in one day was produced by Mauna Loa in 20 minutes in 1984. It’s far and away the most potentially dangerous volcano in Hawai`i.

Thankfully, we’re going on a field trip up Mauna Loa on Thursday. I am so excited to get out of the office it’s almost silly. The week after this one I’ll either be hacking through the low jungles of Mauna Loa’s eastern flank doing a gravity survey, or up on Mauna Loa’s summit doing more kinematic GPS. Down with office work!*

*Bear in mind that office work is also necessary for good science, and that the author of this post is just mildly stir-crazy.


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