Sorry for the interruption!

22 08 2008

So dear readers, I must beg your apologies. Last week I was out in the field almost every day, and then I had a trip to the hospital. The diagnosis was inconclusive, somewhere between a kidney infection and appendicitis. After a night in the Hilo hospital I was itching to get back up to HVO. I am now full of antibiotics and slightly worse for the wear, but I’m going back out in the field tomorrow! It’s a light field day, so I won’t have much chance to strain myself. It is pretty cool to go into an emergency room right after you’ve been mapping lava flows. The ER staff is a bit more impressed than they would be otherwise. Still, I don’t recommend spending your time in Hawai`i surrounded my medical professionals (unless you’re here for a conference, of course).

Ok, so here’s the amazing truck I drive for work. It’s my boss’ truck, and it has rock-crawling tires for jaunts up Mauna Loa. The front bumper has been sawed off for better clearance, too. It’s a beast.

I planned and am about one third of the way through conducting a survey of the gravity of the Ninole Hills in Kahuku Ranch on Mauna Loa’s Southwest Rift Zone. There is a gravity anomaly there that could indicate the presence of an older, proto-Mauna Loa that has since been overtaken by the new Mauna Loa. It was my boss’ idea of course, but it’s really amazing to be conducting the survey with very minimal supervision.

Over the weekend one of my entomologist friends was able to get the two of us into the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, a normally off-limits endangered bird conservation facility. Our goal was to see the Alala, or Hawaiian Crow. There are only 60 of these birds left alive in the entire world, and they are all in captivity. Breeding them is exceptionally difficult as their genetic diversity is very limited. The females have notoriously poor egg quality, and they just don’t have the survival wherewithal to make it in the wild any longer. This is probably the most rare creature I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I won’t forget the experience any time soon.

The Conservation Center has two Alalas together in the educational aviary, and they’re not a breeding pair. The male has cataracts and the female has a degenerative ovary disease. They were still beautiful and obviously intelligent birds. The female has her left leg banded and the male’s right leg is banded.

She was enjoying a thawed mouse snack, and from the way she ripped into it her wild heritage was clearly evident.

This is the male, and he barely stayed still long enough for me to snap this picture.

At any rate, there will be more geology this weekend! It’s good to be back. A special note to Sherry and Randy from FL: I hope you didn’t miss the entries too much!

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!

This is my job?!

5 08 2008

Last Wednesday we went down to the southern part of the island to collect littoral cone deposits. My boss is collaborating with a University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor to prove the magmatic origin of these littoral cones. Essentially, there is a large amount of olivine in the deposits closer to the coastline. The lavas that have erupted near Mauna Loa’s summit are olivine-poor. There are different hypotheses about why this is, and we were sampling to test the different ideas. On with it, right?

Well, we off-roaded for about an hour after we left the highway. When we tumbled out of the truck, this is the view that greeted us.

Very, very nice. After a few minutes of wistful gazing, we headed off to find our littoral prey.

This section of the island has littoral cones all along the shoreline. They’re the distant hills in that picture. Here is a closer view.

We had to climb the cones, find likely samples, break them open with a rock hammer, see if they were glassy and non-stratified enough, and then fill a whole bag with similar samples. Essentially, I spent the day smashing rocks with a hammer. It’s really a fun activity!

Our lunch break afforded me the opportunity to take a few pictures. You need to click the last one to appreciate it fully.

To say the waves were stunning would be an understatement. Eating lunch on a beach while trying to scrape basalt chunks out from under my fingernails has to be one of the best ways to enjoy a sandwich I’ve ever attempted.

We collected samples from 6 littoral cones and then headed back to HVO. On the way we stopped by some petroglyphs and I was able to get a shot.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a geologist. It’s incredibly hard work, but worth every second. I remind myself of that when I feel like whining about doing something difficult. Hard work does have its rewards, and that’s why I’m working my butt off here in paradise.

Lava Pools.

3 08 2008

Since I haven’t uploaded my photos from Wednesday’s fieldwork, for now you get to see the Kapoho Tide Pools. I snorkeled these last weekend.

The pools are as shallow as two feet and as deep as 15. The coral in the pools closest to shore was bleached, but the corals farther out were vibrant and beautiful. I saw two unicornfish, known locally as kala, fighting in a tidepool. Very intriguing to watch, since when they were finished with their skirmish they both resumed nibbling the same piece of fan coral.

Here’s what the sky to the south looked like towards the end of our tide pool visit.

More adventures tomorrow!

P.S. – For Richard: We haven’t processed the data yet, but when we do I’ll let you know if we find any gravity anomalies. For the anonymous reader who asked, the Graviton EG costs about $100,000 USD. No joke.

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.