Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist receives two prestigious awards

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U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Geologist Don Swanson was recently named as the recipient of two prestigious awards.


U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Geologist Don Swanson was recently named as the recipient of two prestigious awards.

In May, he will receive the U.S. Geological Survey’s Shoemaker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Communications. This annual award honors a USGS scientist who has created excitement and enthusiasm for science among nonscientists and recognizes the recipient’s lifetime contributions to science through effective communication skills.

During the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in September, Don will receive the GSA Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology, and Volcanology Division’s Distinguished Geologic Career Award. This annual GSA award goes to an individual who has made distinguished contributions, with emphasis on multidisciplinary and field-based approaches, in one or more geologic fields of research throughout his/her career.

The GSA award citation states, in part, that “as a field-focused geologist, Dr. Swanson combines both strong disciplinary impact in igneous processes and volcanic hazards with unusually passionate public outreach.” It goes on to say, “field-based researchers rarely achieve the same impact in the literature as their academic counterparts, yet Dr. Swanson’s publication record is outstanding and his work has significantly directed volcanic hazards policy.”

Don’s career as a USGS volcanologist spans more than 50 years, six states, and four countries.

On the U.S. mainland, Don mapped and studied the Columbia River basalt, a huge lava field that erupted from 17 to six million years ago and inundated much of eastern Washington and parts of Oregon and Idaho. Don also served as lead geologist for the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, where he played a critical role in the monitoring and documentation of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Six years later, he became CVO’s scientist-in-charge.

Don’s first stint at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was as a staff geologist in 1968-71, during which he documented Kilauea Volcano’s Mauna Ulu eruption. He returned to Hawaii in 1996, and for nearly 8 years, he was HVO’s Scientist-in-Charge. In 2004, Don rotated back to a research scientist position at HVO, where he continues to unravel the geologic history of Kilauea.

Throughout his USGS career, Don has been an enthusiastic communicator of volcano science and hazards. His outreach contributions have spurred public interest in volcanoes and encouraged students to pursue earth science careers.

As scientist-in-charge, Don supported CVO and HVO staff in their development of museum and visitor center displays that have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. For example, a traveling exhibition on Cascade and Hawaiian volcanoes, created by the USGS in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, was showcased in 11 major cities.

Early on, Don saw the potential of the Internet, and made HVO’s Web presence a priority of his leadership tenure. Using the website to post daily updates about Kilauea’s eruption, Don captivated readers around the world with his observations, which were presented in a consistent style that was not overly technical but still maintained scientific rigor. The updates also conveyed his passion and curiosity as a scientist wanting to discover more about Kilauea’s history.

Don’s prose has also graced USGS Fact sheets, USGS General Interest Products, and numerous newspaper columns, all of which have been well-received by the public.

As a speaker, Don’s experience and eloquence has led to countless media interviews and hundreds of diverse community forums to his credit. His recent presentations have focused on his ongoing research into the serious hazard implications of Kilauea’s explosive history, as well as the links between Native Hawaiian culture and volcano science.

Don is committed to knowledge transfer. He has trained hundreds of National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service interpreters on how to convey the geology and hazards of Hawaiian and Cascade Range volcanoes to the public. He is also a prolific field trip leader for undergraduate and graduate geology students wanting to learn about Kilauea.

Scientists and nonscientists alike have reaped the rewards of Don’s half-century of research, visionary communication style, and energetic approach to education and outreach. The USGS and GSA awards are well-deserved tributes to his career and dedication.

Congratulations, Don!

Volcano Watch (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/) is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey‘s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea continues to erupt at its summit and East Rift Zone. During the past week, the summit lava lake level varied between about 75 and 150 feet below the vent rim within Halemaumau Crater. On the East Rift Zone, scattered lava flow activity remains within about 4 miles of Puu Oo and is not currently threatening nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Seismicity remains elevated above long-term background levels, but the earthquake rate remained stable this past week. GPS measurements show continued deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit and upper Southwest Rift Zone of Mauna Loa, with inflation recently occurring mainly in the southwestern part of the magma storage complex.


No earthquakes were reported felt on Hawaii Island during the past week.

Visit the HVO website (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea daily eruption updates, Mauna Loa weekly updates, volcano photos, recent earthquakes info, and more; call for summary updates at 967-8862 (Kilauea) or 967-8866 (Mauna Loa); email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.