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!

CRONUS-HI09 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!





From lava to the stars.

9 09 2008

We made a pretty stunning discovery in Halema`uma`u on Friday. Many months after the explosion that first opened the vent, we finally had visual confirmation of a roiling, active lava lake inside. Some of the scientists were over the vent in a helicopter, and they were able to get pictures and video of the lava. The best estimate is that it’s about 100 meters below the top of the vent. A few hours after the helicopter overflight, I went out with the gas geochemistry team to do Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, or FTIR since the lava was visible.

The round part on top of the tripod is a telescope, and the box on top is the spectrometer. Anyway, since we were on the rim and right over the vent, I think perhaps a picture of the lava’s incandescence is in order.

Yep, that’s lava down there. That sort of glow just doesn’t normally happen during daylight hours. It was truly impressive to stand right above a lava lake. The noises were loud, tremendous, and unrelenting. If it wasn’t clanging with rock falls, it was making gas-rushing noises that sounded like jet engines. The earth is alive!

I have a special treat for all of you. My colleague Brian White was down on the other side of the vent from where I was, and he recorded video. You can finally hear the noises I keep writing about! Make sure your sound is turned on. It’s possible to see some of the incandescence as well.

Thanks Brian!

Saturday brought more impressive sights. I ventured up Mauna Kea with some colleagues to check out the view and do some stargazing. The name Mauna Kea means White Mountain, and that’s because it frequently has snow on its peak during winter. It stands 13,796 feet above the ocean, and is older than Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Mauna Kea is considered dormant, but not extinct. It’s also home to some of the world’s best telescopes and astronomical observatories.

Those are the Keck Twins, formally known as the W.M. Keck Observatory. They sit 85 meters apart at Mauna Kea’s summit and they each have a 10 meter primary mirror.

Those are cinder cones on the north flank of Mauna Kea. Since the volcano is in its “post-shield building” stage, it is literally pockmarked with cones like these.

This is the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility. It was posing nicely for me. It was built to support the Voyager missions.

This is the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory with its dome open.

I don’t think that one needs much explanation.

Here we have the moon, some stars, and the Subaru Telescope.

Last but certainly not least, I give you this:

Yes, that’s a laser issuing from one of the Keck Twins. It actually creates an artificial star that astronomers use to establish a relative location in the sky. I’m sure it does some other neat things, too, but I’m not aware of what they are, exactly. ***EDIT*** Check out Andrew Cooper’s comment at the end of this post for the actual use of the artificial star. He knows what he’s talking about!

If you’re ever in Hawai`i, sunset on Mauna Kea is definitely in order. Oh yeah…you might want to check out any available lava lakes, too.





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!





Highly educational

28 07 2008

After last week’s intense office work, I was dying to get back in the field. Since my knee wasn’t cleared until Saturday, my field experiences would have to be tame. Still, that doesn’t mean they were boring! Since there are a good number of pictures, I’m going to break things up into Thursday and Friday. Tonight’s post will cover last Thursday.

My boss organized a field trip for anyone interested to Kona’s Gold Coast. 13 of us set out from HVO early Thursday to begin a day of learning in the best way possible – while standing in front of the subjects of our study! The first stop was Rainbow Falls outside of Hilo.

While the average tourist might have stopped here to marvel at the falls themselves (and the tiny rainbow you can just glimpse at their base), we were here to look at the volcanic stratigraphy. Behind the mist of the falls it’s possible to glimpse columnar basalt. Lava flows of several different ages are visible here.

The next stop was at Kaumana Cave, a well-known skylight in a massive lava tube created by the 1881 eruption of Mauna Loa. The tube is about 25 miles long, and definitely illustrates the hazards posed by lava flows. The guy at the bottom of the picture is a visiting scientist from Japan, and the guy on top of the tube is one of our preeminent seismologists.

While stopped at a kipuka for some geologic question and answer time, I spotted this plant that was reveling in the morning dew. Just thought you might like some Hawaiian foliage to brighten your day! If any of you biologically-inclined sorts know what kind of plant this is, do tell.

This is an incredibly interesting thing to geologists. It’s called a xenolith, which translates from Latin as “foreign rock.” That’s exactly what it is. This particular xenolith is dunite, a rock that is composed of coarse grains of olivine and originates in the earth’s crust. Essentially, the basalt grabbed the piece of dunite from where it formed deep below the surface and carried it upward, where it came to rest inside the flow. This particular lava flow is one of the best sources of xenoliths in the entire world. It is from Hualalai volcano, and the eruption took place in 1800. There were plenty of other xenoliths nearby ranging from clinopyroxene to gabbro and more. This is amazingly interesting for someone who is captivated by crust-eruption interactions (yeah, that would be me).

Our trip informed us in detail about Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Hualalai. The only volcano we didn’t touch on was Kohala, the oldest one on the island. My boss is so knowledgeable on all things Hawai`i that it blows my mind. I know he was born and raised on the islands, and that he’s been working at HVO for over 20 years…but still! He’s brilliant. Here is where I ought to mention that he’s the scientist who proved that Kilauea volcano has a deep plumbing system. This is critical to our understanding of the volcano’s eruptions. This is such an amazing opportunity.

After our long day of learning, we headed down to Mauna Loa’s 1881 lava flow on the western portion of the island. The flow took 8 days to reach the coast, and reach the coast it did. It travelled over 31 miles, and this is how it looks today.

Not too shabby, is it? The grass is a pretty nasty invasive species and is resistant to fire. Eradicating it is nearly impossible, but at least it makes the pictures look good. We ended the educational portion of our trip at Anaehoomalu Bay (known as A Bay by people who don’t want to attempt THAT tongue-twister). You can just look at the water and guess what we did when we got there. I’m not going to give away all of our secrets.

Tomorrow will be pictures and talk about Friday’s gravity survey. This Thursday I’m going to the southern end of the island to collect samples from littoral cone deposits on Mauna Loa’s Southwest Rift Zone. I’m ready and waiting for the fieldwork to begin anew!





Hot enough for you?

19 07 2008

The ocean entry was spectacular on Tuesday. It’s the terminus of a series of lava tubes that issue from Pu`u O`o, a parasitic eruption site on Kilauea’s flank. The ocean entry had dried up completely for a while after the lava fountain from one of my earlier posts began, but it’s back and better than ever. Instead of just oozing into the ocean or producing small explosions, the lava was shooting between 40-50 feet in the air. I saw 3 flashes of lightning in the plume while I was there. That’s a newly observed phenomenon that had just started the day. Like I said, spectacular. I’ll just shut up and let you see for yourself.

It was after 7PM when I arrived, but a full moon illuminated the plume and water quite a bit.

The plume was creating massive disturbances in the surrounding atmosphere. You can see a waterspout to the left of the plume. Genuinely amazing.

In that one the lava was reaching for the ocean as well as for the land. The entire time I was there the eruption was building a spatter rampart (a wall-like structure of ejected lava). Remember, the lava is 40-50 feet high in these photos.

So yes, all of you who were waiting on tenterhooks for actual lava…there you have it! I’ve never heard a group of entirely disparate people, young and old, all ooh and ahh like I did on Tuesday. Adults failed to disguise the outright wonder in their voices, and children decided to inform everyone else that this was much, much better than fireworks. I could’ve watched it forever. The earth doesn’t get any newer than this…or more beautiful.





Damage Report!

12 07 2008

I have returned safely from my `Ainapo Trail survey, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I am beat. Literally. It looks like I was in a fight. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. The bottoms of both of my feet are covered in blisters. Each heel is covered by a blister. All of the available bottom surface of both big toes is consumed by blister. Several smaller toes are in on the action, and I have a few random blisters on the balls of both feet as well as sporadic, small blisters elsewhere. It is thoroughly disgusting and incredibly painful.

In addition to the blister invasion, I can’t really move my lower body. My pack weighed 43lbs, and when I was carrying the kGPS the weight totalled 61lbs. For reference, I weigh 130lbs with clothes on. If you are not a fan of math, that translates to about 47% of my body weight. As a result, I slipped and fell on a few occasions. Yesterday morning I managed a stunning kneeplant into some a`a lava, which as you hopefully recall is the pointy, unforgiving kind. Half of my left knee is swollen, all of it is bruised, and there are a few bloody spots to be found. My wounded knee (haha) decided to rebel early this morning and consequently made the rest of our epic journey fairly unpleasant. Walking on a normal surface would’ve been a challenge, and the windward side of Mauna Loa is anything but normal.

I am also the proud owner of eleven new bruises (that I can find without assistance), assorted scratches, and a plethora of achey body parts.

I love my life. Seriously.

Since I’m too pathetically sore to stand up and procure my camera from the foot of my bed, pictures and a description of the survey will have to wait. Also, there’s a small piece of basalt in my eye. This ought to annoy me, but how many people complain about lava chips from Mauna Loa invading personal eye space? I am going to appreciate this chip! Ok, I’m going to appreciate it for about 30 seconds and then get it out.

Here’s a video of the brand new eruption near Pu`u O`o to tide all of you over until I can write more.

The helicopter they were using to shoot the video? That’s the one I’ve ridden in twice now. I do the same sort of thing, except minus the video camera and over Mauna Loa instead. I’m hoping to get out to the active eruption site in the helo next week. Time to go nurse my battle wounds!