UH-Hilo providing scientific assistance from afar

  • Ken Hon

HILO — Although miles away from the volcanic volatility, the University of Hawaii at Hilo is playing a supporting role in the response to the eruption in Puna.

In addition to opening its doors to the U.S. Geological Survey’s recently relocated Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, university staff and students are assisting in research efforts.

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Ken Hon, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and a professor who has taught volcanology for 20 years in the school’s geology department, said UH-Hilo has had a long-standing cooperative agreement with the USGS and HVO.

In support of the volcanic activity studies, Hon said “specifically, we are using an analytical lab in the geology department to analyze the chemistry of the different lava flows coming down,” as well as tracking the changes in the chemistry of those flows.

Hon said that can give researchers some idea of whether the lava was stored lava, in place as much as 50-100 years ago, or newer lava, which is hotter.

Geology department Chairman Steve Lundblad and another group of students had been measuring around the Puna Geothermal Venture powerplant “the change and shape of the ground” to look for things such as magma movement, he said.

And Ryan Perroy, an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental science, who runs the Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab, is using drones over the eruption area to collect data for HVO and Civil Defense, Hon said.

Perroy said in an email that the Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab is providing support to Civil Defense and USGS “through our small, unmanned aerial system mapping capabilities.”

“We’re working closely together to provide timely information to the incident commanders on the ground in terms of lava activity and movement,” he said. “We also provide data and imagery to Civil Defense that gets incorporated into damage assessment and property loss.”

In a follow-up interview, Perroy said his group worked with Civil Defense monitoring the Pahoa lava flow several years ago, and when the current eruption started, he received a call from Civil Defense “to see if we could help out and provide some support and imagery of the flow as it advanced.”

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Perroy said they’ve been mapping out the lava’s flow front and also done some flights for damage assessment. But in the past two weeks, they’ve mostly been flying at night to, again, provide assistance and support, he said.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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