Volcanic eruptions and fumes, oh my!

5 09 2008

The night after I helped set up the time-lapse camera to record any collapses of the vent rim, there were two magmatic explosive events. The rim area beneath and to the east of the plume is littered with spatter material. The explosions happened about an hour after I visited the visitor overlook. If only I’d been an hour later! At any rate, I was able to go down into the caldera again yesterday to assist with sampling gases from fumaroles. These are holes in the ground near volcanoes that emit gases and steam. We decided to see the spatter material before venturing in on foot.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing that this road is closed to the public. Some of the ejected material was incandescent at the time of eruption, which signifies fairly high temperatures.

We left that area and journeyed to the less-travelled southern end of Halema`uma`u crater. Here’s a view of the crater wall that you can’t see from the Observatory or Jaggar Museum.

We continued hiking around to the western edge of the crater and stopped for a bit to watch the plume. The vent was making banging noises like it had all day on Tuesday, and after a while it switched to gas rushing sounds. It’s akin to the noise a 747 jet makes as it lands. At one point the plume almost died out, and then it resumed more vigorous puffing and turned brown.

Our resident gas geochemist was nice enough to model for me.

He’s standing in an area of the crater known as the Postal Rift. When Halema`uma`u was filled entirely with lava back in 1919, visitors could walk right up to the rift and dip their postcards into the lava. The edges would become a nicely singed, unique souvenir of their visit to Kilauea. Try to imagine that whole crater and the rift where the scientist is standing as a lava lake. Pretty amazing.

So, I’m sure you’re all curious about what sulfur dioxide does to the areas surrounding it.

It makes sulfur crystals! When sulfur-rich gas seeps out of the earth and the area remains relatively undisturbed, it gives sulfur crystals the chance to grow. They’re beautiful.

Here’s a fumarole up close and personal. The crystals are about 1/2-3/4 inch at their longest. They also smell like rotten eggs. Hey, perfection is hard!

This is what we do with fumaroles…we sample the gas they emit! I’m using a technique called evacuated-bottle fumarole gas sampling. First we measure the temperature of the fumarole using a probe. The temperature around the crater is right near the boiling temperature at this altitude = 94.8 degrees Celsius. After that we insert a teflon tube into the fumarole, and connect the tube to a specially-made vacuum-sealed Pyrex bottle. We then pump the gas into the bottle slowly, and make sure that it cools and condenses enough to close the bottle off.

Once we get back to the lab we run the samples through a manometer (pressure-reading device) to compare the gas pressure in the bottles to the ambient room pressure. After that we stick it on a gas chromatograph and measure the bottle’s levels of air, water, CO2, and SO2. Fumaroles from different areas have different gas concentrations, and this helps us to understand the magma and gas beneath the crater’s surface.

Not a day goes by without me learning something incredibly interesting!


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.

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!

`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.

Quick Plumage

14 07 2008

Kilauea painted quite a lovely picture last night, and even though I haven’t looked at my `Ainapo Trail pics I thought that you might enjoy these. They were taken slightly before midnight last night. The moon was nearly full and the stars were out en masse.

I told you it glowed at night.

And a slightly closer view:

That glow is intense.

I want to say thank you to everyone who has visited and/or commented. The incredibly positive response this site has garnered from family, friends, colleagues, and complete strangers is my motivation to continue publicly documenting my ongoing adventures in volcanology. I can’t believe it hasn’t even been three weeks yet!

`Ainapo Trail pics and story will appear tomorrow, I promise.

Oh, I should also mention that Okmok volcano in Alaska erupted today. The Alaska Volcano Observatory site has some interesting information about the eruption. One of their scientists has been here at HVO for a few weeks, and he was supposed to be on seismic watch at AVO today. The poor guy missed out! I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll have some explosive activity while I’m over here. It’s every volcanologist’s dream.


28 06 2008

Today was very voggy. No, I haven’t developed a spelling problem. When volcanoes emit SO2 gas (sulfur dioxide), things can get very stinky very quickly. The result is a wonderful substance known as vog.¬†Usually the vog from Halema`uma`u is blown by the trade winds and it heads away from HVO, the National Park Visitor Center, and our house.¬†However, there are times when the trade winds take a day off. The vog is dangerous to breathe in and can lead to evacuation of the park. Fortunately, today the vog returned to its visitor-friendly direction and no evacuation was necessary. Here’s a very voggy shot I took on my lunch break.

Volcano + Smog = Vog

In case you didn’t know or don’t want to take the time to click the link, the vent in the picture just opened explosively on March 19, 2008. It’s brand new! Here’s a link to the webcam that provides a live feed from the vent: Halema`uma`u Live! Even if it’s dark outside, go check it out. At night you can see the glow from inside even when it’s pitch black everywhere else.

Yesterday and today have consisted mainly of paperwork and training. I passed my IT security training as well as my helicopter flight training. Most of today was spent reading scientific papers about Mauna Loa’s history and evolution, and of course I’m still trying to remember the names of the (seemingly) 800 people I’ve met.

My boss told me about the projects I’ll be working on, and next week is going to be incredible. On Monday we’re driving up to the summit of Mauna Loa to collect samples from explosion fields. The oldest flow we will be working on is from 1859. I’ll talk more about the samples later. Tuesday will be time to process some of the samples and get a flight suit for me in anticipation of Wednesday. That’s when the astoundingly exciting happens: I get to go on a special mission to the summit of Mauna Loa…in a helicopter! We’ll be covering much more ground (and air) that way. It’s also pretty neat that they actually call it a “mission.”

This weekend will be relaxing and preparing for next week’s insanity. If I go anywhere with relevant geology, I’ll make sure to write about it.