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!


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!

Whirlwind of kGPS excitement.

9 07 2008

I spent yesterday in the office sorting and cataloguing last week’s Cl-36 samples for X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis. It was a quiet and non-eventful day, so that’s why I didn’t write a new post. Today I was supposed to go to the floor of Kilauea’s caldera and learn how to do kinematic (moving) Global Positioning System (GPS) surveys. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen due to a timing error when it came to dodging red tape.

In order to go into Kilauea’s caldera, you have to wear a respirator and hard hat. This is due to the extremely high level of sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas that is issuing from the newest vent, Halema`uma`u. Because of the likelihood of lung damage from SO2 inhalation, the government requires that all new caldera researchers take a spirometer test. A record of your original, pre-caldera lung capacity is needed to compare against any possible future lung damage. I couldn’t get an appointment to visit the doctor in Hilo until Friday, so today’s caldera trip was cancelled.

The kinematic GPS (kGPS) tutorial was not, however. We visited several benchmarks outside of the caldera rim for training purposes. Here’s a geodetic survey benchmark, so you understand what we were looking for. These markers are small metal disks affixed firmly to the ground and their precise locations have been recorded before, sometimes many years ago. People who are into geocaching may be familiar with them already.

I required kGPS training because on Thursday I’m going to be part of a team that is being dropped off by helicopter on the eastern flank of Mauna Loa. Our mission is to hike down the `Ainapo Trail and record the benchmarks on the Mauna Loa level line. This will allow us to see if the volcano is deforming at all. Deformation can be a good indicator of volcanic activity beneath the earth’s surface. At any rate, the `Ainapo Trail is widely regarded as the most difficult hike in Hawai’i. Let’s just say that I’m pleased we’re carrying the equipment down and not up. We’ll be camping out somewhere on the trail on Thursday night, and we should return on Friday.

For now, here’s a picture of me with my kGPS from earlier today. That’s the summit of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano.

Fun for all.

I suppose I ought to mention that there was an active volcanic eruption occurring behind me.

Good times.

That’s just pretty cool.