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!


What it all means.

6 07 2008

No pictures today, only thoughts about geology. There will be more pictures again on Monday, so don’t worry. I just thought perhaps you might like some insight into the “Why geology?” question.

I’m reading a book about death in the Grand Canyon. It’s fascinating and takes on a whole new dimension since I just visited there recently. The geology angle is certainly amplified by my chosen profession. Anyway, a quote that I read today summed up my feelings on geology in as succinct and complete a fashion as I could ever hope for.

“Who in the hell wants to be a white collar sissy when one can enjoy such grandeur and beauty such as this?” – Bert Loper, on why he was making yet another (and eventually fatal) Grand Canyon Colorado River run at the age of nearly 80.

Yep. No offense to my friends behind desks, but indoor jobs just weren’t for me. Give me 13,000 feet above sea level. Give me back-breaking work and interminable hikes over wickedly sharp lava flows. Give me meticulous data collection. Give me the dirty, dusty, sweaty grunt work that no one else wants. To hell with the physical discomfort of being cold or hot, or thirsty or tired. I can go places few have ever gone or will go. I can take helicopter flights above active volcanoes. I can descend into volcanic vents. I can hike into the middle of the desert to garner valuable research material. I can take a machete to a jungle or use the stars to navigate at night. I can use my body and mind together to unfold the mysteries of our planet, or even of the universe. I can still be that astronaut of my child fantasies. I can still discover something that might change the course of science as we know it.

I love geology because it is tangible proof that I can still do anything I want. I love geology because it gives back all of those little girl dreams I thought that I had to relinquish in order to be a so-called responsible adult. I love geology because in explaining life the way no other field does, it also offers me the opportunity to write a chapter in the neverending story.

In closing, a very different sort of quote that also resonates deeply with me:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

~William Blake

T-minus one week.

18 06 2008

At this time next week I’ll be winging my way over the vast Pacific Ocean, headed towards three months of work on the world’s largest active volcano. That’s incredibly soon, isn’t it? I have this week off from school and work, so I’m attempting to get some of my household in order. My husband will take care of our animals and the bills that I usually pay. Without his support and that of my parents and professors this whole excursion would certainly not be possible.

In preparation for the trip I’ve had to acquire some new gear. To this point, all of my geology field work has been in environments like Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. The windward side of the Big Island of Hawai’i receives well over 100 inches of rain every year. In addition to actual rain gear, this trip to Hawai’i demands new field boots. My typical geology footwear is Caterpillar brand steel-toed men’s work boots. I’ve had the same pair since 1999 and they’ve stood me in remarkably good stead. However, the volcanologist I’m working for informed me that I should bring steel-toed boots under no circumstances. Upon reflection, I realized that the ambient heat from any active lava flows would make steel a very unpleasant substance under which to keep my feet. New boots were a must.

I managed to find these boots on sale for only $45 at JC Penney. Excellent! I broke them in a bit on a trip to Arizona (Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater, the Grand Canyon) last week and I think they’ll be ready for some lava action next week.

As for other gear I’ve obtained a few new pairs of work pants, an amazing new backpack, and a new tent. I still need a small mummy-style sleeping bag and a ground pad. A few more long-sleeved thermal undershirts wouldn’t hurt either.

Due to the luggage weight restrictions imposed by the airlines, I won’t be taking my trusty and beloved rock hammer. The Hawaiian Islands are all composed of basalt anyway, so it’s not like what I’ll be encountering is tremendously surprising. I know that I will feel slightly off for a while without the hammer, but since it tips the scales at 20oz, it’s certainly not worth carting across the ocean.

If anyone has questions or comments about the gear I’m taking with me, feel free to leave a comment below this post. The departure date draws inexorably nearer! (And yes, I’m ridiculously excited.)