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!


`Ainapo Adventures

15 07 2008

At long last, the `Ainapo Trail story in pictures and words! Huzzah, and here we go.

The day started early and 5 of us headed up Mauna Loa’s northwest flank in my boss’ heavy duty truck.

Once we were near the summit, the helicopter met us and flew us across the caldera to the southeastern flank. My boss was already waiting for us, as the helicopter had taken him up first. We split into teams of 3 to perform our surveys. My group headed down the `Ainapo Trail, certain to camp overnight. The second group headed around Mokuaweoweo (Mauna Loa’s caldera) and was able to drive back down the same day.

Here’s the start of our survey. We were at the 3rd benchmark here, and we were just finishing up lunch. The day started off beautifully.

The good weather was not to remain our companion for long, however. This was the scene near our 5th or 6th benchmark. I have to say that I love my boss’ outfit. Like all good geologists, his style is impeccable. You’ve seen the way I dress in the field, so be aware that this is utterly tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps we should look into Nike sponsorship or something. At least then we’d match.

The fog was accompanied by rain, and we found our last benchmark of the day in a steady drizzle. Luckily for us, the bossman is resourceful and found a dry (albeit cramped) place to sleep for the night. In a lava tube. On the side of the world’s largest volcano. This has to be one of the highlights of my outdoor life, if not of my entire life.

My boss did a lovely job of modelling the tube for the camera. We had a simple dinner of minestrone heated over the tiny stove, and then we were about ready for sleep. Camping conversations are always fun, and ours was no exception. I’m not going to post a photo of my portion of the lava tube, as it was an even tighter fit than the one pictured. My parents do not need their respective blood pressures elevated any higher than necessary by my escapades.

I do have to say that one of the most rewarding parts of camping is the unexpected splendor of the early morning views that are often available. When you reach a campsite at night, the daylight can offer wonderful surprises. Shortly after dawn on Mauna Loa was no exception.

The plume from Kilauea’s Halema`uma`u vent is visible in the middle of the picture. It is situated at approximately 4,000 feet above sea level. Our campsite was about 9,000 feet above sea level. We started our hike around 13,000 feet above sea level. The temperature dropped to 42 degrees Farenheit in our lava tube, so we weren’t that uncomfortable. I slept poorly, but that could have been because my tube section was the size of a coffin. Most of the hike was over a`a lava, and that’s why I was so battered by the end.

The survey went well overall, and we’ll polish the data tomorrow. We should be able to compare this information with last year’s in order to assess Mauna Loa’s deformation rate. This, in turn, will enable us to form a better picture of the volcanic activity beneath the mountain’s massive surface.

The south.

2 07 2008

Today saw more work with the Cl-36 folks. We were in the office in the morning for a talk by one of the visiting scientists, so we didn’t start out for the field until after noon. I drove the 4×4 Chevy Tahoe and we journeyed past Na`alehu to Pu`unahaha Pu`ulou. Our sample site was on the southeastern portion of the island and required four-wheel drive. I was up to the task and had a blast driving over ash, cinder, and lava. Often, the most travelled routes were the worst so I claim responsibility for forging a few new paths. What did I learn today? Running over large objects in a 4WD truck that is lifted and has tires suited for rock crawling is extremely fun.

I know that’s probably obvious to anyone who goes four-wheeling, but since my normal vehicle is a sedan I hope you’ll forgive me. Today was 7 hours in the field, yesterday was 14, and tomorrow will also be a big one. It’s helicopter day! I picked out a flight suit today and I’m set to fly tomorrow. We’re working in groups of two and my group will sample 4 different sites. We’re starting at the 1849 lava flows on the north side of Mauna Loa and working our way down to a fissure on the south side. That means that the helicopter will take off and land multiple times. I’m nervous but very excited.

Ok, here’s a picture of Punalu`u Beach today. As will be made immediately obvious, it’s a black sand beach.


Sleep now, in preparation for tomorrow’s aviation adventure!