Continuing with the Volcano Awareness Month theme of people and their work at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, we move on to another role at HVO — that of “geologist.”
A geologist studies the Earth. This includes the study of rocks and the ways in which they form. Specifically, HVO geologists specialize in the numerous forms of volcanic rocks—liquid and solid lava flows and explosive deposits, such as ash.
As lava cools and solidifies, it can take the form of aa or pahoehoe—Hawaiian words used worldwide by volcanologists. Solid volcanic rock can also occur as particles, ranging from fine ash and Pele’s hair to vehicle-sized lava bombs and blocks. In between, there are Pele’s tears (droplets of volcanic glass), scoria and reticulite (forms of basaltic pumice), and spatter (clots of molten lava).
Geologists also try to understand the past to better anticipate the future. As liquid lava turns to solid volcanic rock, it records the processes that formed the rock. Through field observations and petrologic and petrographic analyses, physical and chemical information can be found in the rock at various scales, from micro-sized crystals to lava flows that are kilometers (miles) long.
The HVO geology team studies how volcanic rocks form, how lava erupts and solidifies, and how explosions are triggered. We study how and when the surface of a volcano is created and how and why disturbances such as faulting and collapses happen. We also assess the hazards of eruptions and rock breakage.
The general approach to using geologic data on a volcano is to reconstruct how the volcano formed. We then use this information to model or forecast how the volcano could behave in the future.
Maintaining HVO’s camera network is one of the geology team’s critical jobs. HVO’s current network consists of 22 live web cameras and 1 time-lapse camera covering 45 percent of the Kilauea lava-flow hazard zone 1 area and 36 percent of the Mauna Loa lava-flow hazard zone 1 area. The camera network provides real-time monitoring of areas that cannot be staffed 24/7. This allows us to track changes in critical areas so that we always know what the volcano is doing.
HVO’s geology group is responsible for the camera network, but it takes many others to keep the network running. HVO engineers help build the camera systems and provide the power systems that keep them running. HVO IT staff ensure that our cameras can transmit images to the website.
Cameras cannot, however, replace “boots on the ground” observations by geologists in the field. How much time we spend in the field depends on volcanic activity. During this relatively quiet time on Kilauea, we’re in the field 1-2 days per month. During the 2018 eruption, HVO geologists were in the field 7 days per week.
During an active eruption, our field work tasks include collecting lava samples, tracking a lava flow’s growth and advance rate, and assessing if hazards in the affected area have increased or decreased. In both eruptive and non-eruptive times, we also examine older deposits in a continuing study of the island’s volcanic history.
There is no “typical” field day for HVO geologists—our work is determined by what information is needed. For instance, prior to 2018, we tracked Puu Oo lava flows, as well as the growth of lava deltas, looking for signs of impending collapses or potential explosions. During the 2018 lower East Rift Zone eruption, we measured how fast lava flowed through the fissure 8 channel and checked the boundaries of the lava channel to assess their stability.
Our field work produces many detailed measurements, enabling us to accurately assess volcanic hazards. Examples include monitoring how heat is progressing away from the 2018 dike in lower Puna and measuring the rise of water in the Halema’uma’u crater lake with a laser rangefinder.
HVO geologists also spend time in the office. That’s when we analyze and interpret data collected in the field and write reports that are ultimately published. To help interpret geologic data, we use several computer programs, some of which help us create the maps posted on HVO’s public website. Other programs help us create 3-dimensional models of volcanic features, or help us calculate and model lava flow behavior, explosion behavior, and collapse processes.
There’s rarely a dull moment for HVO’s geology team, which is why we enjoy our work. The job of a geologist definitely rocks!
This is the final article about HVO people and jobs in the Volcano Awareness Month 2020 series, but additional HVO teams may write about their work in future Volcano Watch articles.
Please visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.
Volcano Watch (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/hvo_volcano_watch.html) is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates. Today’s article is by HVO geologist Carolyn Parcheta.