Coming home: HVO welcomes Deputy Scientist-in-Charge David Phillips

  • New Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Deputy Scientist-in-Charge David Phillips and his wife, Francine Coloma, with Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji in the background. (Photo courtesy of Yasushi Harada/Special to West Hawaii Today)

It takes a village to run a volcano observatory. The position of deputy scientist-in-charge (DSIC), once called operations manager but always known as the right hand to the scientist-in-charge, has long been key to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s success, especially as technology has advanced and staff size increased. Continuing in the tradition of skilled and dedicated leaders including Reggie Okamura, his brother Arnold Okamura, and recently retired Steve Brantley, HVO is proud to welcome David Phillips to the team.

This belated Volcano Watch should have been written in January when David and his, wife Francine Coloma, who is a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, moved to Hilo. Phillips and Coloma come (back) to us from Boulder, Colorado, where David was a program manager for UNAVCO, the Geodetic Facility for the U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA. There, he oversaw multimillion-dollar facility operations to collect, process and archive geodetic data, led community science activities around the globe, and coordinated earthquake response missions.


Phillips has utilized high precision global positioning system (GPS) and light detection and ranging (lidar) instruments to support state-of-the-art geophysical research projects in Hawaii, the mainland U.S., Japan, Italy, Croatia, Puerto Rico and other locales. As examples, he conducted terrestrial lidar fieldwork in Japan following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and coordinated airborne lidar and satellite radar imaging of the San Andreas fault, Yellowstone, and other important geologic features.

In Hawaii, Phillips had a leading role installing continuous GPS sites on Mauna Loa Volcano in 2005 as part of a collaborative project involving UNAVCO, USGS and the University of Hawaii (UH). He has also installed continuous GPS sites on Kilauea Volcano, at the Hilo airport, and on Oahu and Kauai to support sea level and atmospheric studies in addition to volcano monitoring. Thus, he is no stranger to the challenges and wonders of working on Hawaiian volcanoes with local communities and with profound respect for Hawaiian culture.

Phillips has a Ph.D in geophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a bachelors of science degree in geology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. His dissertation focused on collecting and analyzing GPS data to study plate tectonics in the South Pacific, and also included work in South America and Antarctica.

While an undergraduate at UH-Hilo, he was a student assistant at the Center for Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV) where he worked directly with HVO staff on volcano monitoring and outreach. David continued to be involved with CSAV as an instructor while at UH-Manoa and UNAVCO, always returning to teach. He is passionate about science education and the encouragement of local youth to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. He has taught youth programs at the Lyman Museum, led fieldtrips for Upward Bound, and helped Jim Kauahikaua (HVO) and Jim Anderson (UHH) teach a program for Na Pua No‘eau. David is excited to contribute to HVO’s outreach program going forward.

Phillips brings professional ties to scientists and technical experts at major research institutions and other U.S. Government agencies such as NOAA and NASA who utilize technology and generate data very familiar to HVO. These ties will prove extremely useful to HVO as we enter the era of National Volcano Early Warning System expansion and integration of our efforts with the other U.S. volcano observatories.

As HVO deputy scientist-in-charge, Phillips will supervise the field engineering staff and monitoring network managers, essentially the critical infrastructure backbone of the HVO instrumentation that tracks activity at our volcanoes. He will also oversee work on HVO facilities, play a pivotal role in the planning our new buildings, and facilitate important interagency relationships with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and other cooperators in Hawaii.

In many ways, Phillips and Coloma are coming full circle. Phillips’ career in geophysics and volcano monitoring began when he was a geology major at UH-Hilo. Coloma was born and raised in Hilo, was also a geology major at UH-Hilo, and previously worked at HVO. And, Phillips and Coloma first met while surveying in front of an active lava flow.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at NORMAL ( Kilauea updates are issued monthly.

Kilauea monitoring data for the past month show variable but typical rates of seismicity and ground deformation, low rates of sulfur dioxide emissions, and only minor geologic changes since the end of eruptive activity in September 2018. The water lake at the bottom of Halemaumau continues to slowly expand and deepen.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to eruption from current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.


This past week, about 92 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded beneath the upper elevations of Mauna Loa; most of these occurred at shallow depths less than 5 miles. GPS measurements show slowly increasing summit inflation, consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. Gas concentrations at the Sulphur Cone monitoring site on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Fumarole temperatures as measured at both Sulphur Cone and the summit have not changed significantly.

There were two earthquake events with three or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a magnitude-3.2 earthquake 5 miles northeast of Pahala at 12:20 p.m. May 10 and a magnitude-3.7 earthquake 16 miles west of Kailua-Kona at 10:55 p.m. May 6.

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