Hawaii 24/7 photos by Baron Sekiya | Story by Karin Stanton
Day 10,000 will probably be a lot like the first 9,999 days. And that means Kilauea Volcano will do something to surprise Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and delight park visitors.
May 21, 2010 marks the 10,000th day of continuous eruption on Kilauea Volcano, which now has two active vents: an east rift zone vent (Puu Oo), which has been erupting since Jan. 3, 1983 and a summit vent (Halemaumau Crater), which has been erupting since March 19, 2008.
The 27-year show has included spraying lava across the southern flank of the Big Island, shooting hot rocks over 74 acres, spewing toxic gas clouds into the sky and generally creating all kinds of neat volcanic fireworks.
For more than 2 million visitors each year, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hang out on the very edge of the world and experience the power of nature.
For HVO scientists and park rangers, it’s a daily opportunity to better understand volcanoes and how they work, and a daily challenge to keep themselves and park visitors safe.
“It’s a biological and geological wonder,” Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando said. “It’s the longest continuous eruption in the world today. We’ve come a long way since the first visit by a Western scientist in 1823.”
Scientists and park rangers conducted a tour Thursday along the 4-mile section of Crater Rim Drive that has been closed to the public since February 2008.
When a vent inside the south caldera of Kilauea began discharging gas, park officials first warned visitors not to stop along the road and avoid breathing the gas, which is laced with dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide.
But, of course, some could not resist the photo opportunity and after several visitors suffered respiratory distress, the entire section from Jaggar Museum to Chain of Craters Road was blocked off.
A month later, the vent blew wide open, emitting great plumes of toxic gas and spitting chunks of super-heated rock more than 1,300 feet from the crater.
Large and hot, debris from the initial explosion knocked down the trail fencing and ignited the wooden viewing platform at the crater’s rim. Rocks the size of golf balls were found more than 400 yards away and residents of nearby Pahala town reported layers of ash covering their cars and yards.
“This is the first time for an eruption right here since 1924,” said Jim Kauahikaua, HVO scientist-in-charge. “It couldn’t be more interesting. There’s something about this eruption that you find in very few eruptions: we can study it up close every day.”
Kauahikaua said he has spent his five years as scientist-in-charge sharing what this eruption has taught his team at HVO.
“The biggest misconception is that Halemaumau Crater is just a big hole in the ground,” he said. “It’s not. There’s a lot going on in there.”
Through 2008, eight explosive events were recorded and the vent expanded to more than 400 feet in diameter. The floor of the crater is 280 feet below the rim and a large lava pond bubbles some 600 feet down the vent.
“That is a very deep pit,” geologist Tim Orr said. “We’ve come to a much better understanding of lava dynamics by watching the lava pond. Scientifically, it’s very interesting and exciting.”
Using infrared cameras that can peer straight through the gas clouds, scientists have measured the lava pond at about 200 feet by 295 feet.
The area remains closed because of continuing elevated sulfur dioxide emissions rates and unpredictable explosive eruption events. Rangers and scientists have no idea when it might be safe.
“There’s no indication that it’s going to slow down, which gives us great opportunities to study it more,” Kauahikaua said.
The eruption at Halemaumau Crater is all about gas, rather than lava.
“Gas gets to the surface often before the magma,” said Jeff Sutton, HVO gas geochemist. “That gives us some idea of what’s going on underneath.”
Studying this event has solidified much of the research gathered from previous eruptions, he said.
“These are very thin layers of knowledge,” Sutton said. “We are really fortunate to have all this data (from daily air samples).”
One bonus to closing off that section of road, Orlando said, is that rangers have noticed more and more birds have returned to the forest areas near Chain of Craters Road.
‘We’re not bad at predicting …’
Mike Poland, HVO geophysicist, said he and his colleagues use all the data – from the earliest observations to the most advanced technology – in their daily assessment of what Kilauea is doing and is about to do.
“Volcanoes tell you when they are restless,” he said.
For example, he said, he regularly conducts GPS surveys of specific points around the activity to monitor geologic changes.
“We can track very, very small movements, just millimeters over time,” Poland said. “And we can track large, rapid events. We can track how much magma there is and where it’s going. That gives us a very good picture of when something is going to happen.
“The thing about Kilauea is that every day there’s potential for something to happen and things do change every day,” he said. “I’ve been exposed to a tremendous variety of events.”
Poland said being able to observe and study volcanic activity up close is an exciting opportunity for any scientist.
“We have world-class experts on seismicity, gas geochemistry, geology, all in the same building here and an amazing resource right outside our window,” he said. “We’re not bad at predicting, but what we need to work on is when it’s going to stop. We have no idea.”
The working relationship between scientists and rangers allows park visitors to have the safest possible experience, Orlando said.
“Science informs our decisions,” Orlando said.
Currently, 15 of the 130 miles of marked trail in the 333,000-acre park are off-limits and four miles of the 62 miles of paved road are closed.
“We want visitors to be able to experience the park’s wonders and we don’t like to close areas off,” Orlando said, “but we have to be aware of the changing conditions and be safe.”
The new Visitor Emergency Operations Center (VEOC) will combine park visitor and resource protection operation into one centralized building.
The $4 million building will allow for consolidating emergency services functions in the park, caring more effectively for visitors in distress, and responding to natural disasters more efficiently.
The VEOC is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It is scheduled for completion by year’s end.
The 4,481square foot structure will incorporate the existing footprint of the 1,271square foot ranger office and add on 3,210 square feet.
It will be home base for two dozen park staff, including law enforcement and eruption duty rangers, firefighters, and dispatchers of the 24-hour Pacific Area Communications Center.
It also will be the place visitors go for emergency medical services and to register for backcountry hikes.
The VEOC will serve as the command center during major park incidents — eruptions, elevated sulfur dioxide levels, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, hurricanes, air accidents, etc.
An air-filtration system will ensure the building remains a safe haven during times of elevated levels of sulfur dioxide.
There will also be training and conference rooms, and an interview room and holding cell for those detained for investigative purposes.
The structure will meet criteria to qualify as a Green Building under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, with potential to test new alternative energy sources, including solar, photovoltaic and hydrogen (for a back-up energy supply).
In addition, Volcano House is undergoing a $3 million upgrade. The 1940s-era structure is being updated to protect against earthquake damage and fires.
Applications for a new concession contract will be accepted once the work is complete, Orlando said.
Video and text courtesy of USGS and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This movie (x3 speed) shows an explosive eruption from the vent in Halemaumau in October 2008 The normally white plume is rapidly overwhelmed with a vigorous ash-rich pulse that rises rapidly from the vent. Red flashes above the vent indicate hot, incandescent material being ejected. The explosion deposited a field of fist-size ejecta around the crater rim.
This is an example of a large explosive event within Halemaumau crater There were several in 2008 This is remarkable in that you can see the red even in daylight
There have been hundreds of smaller explosive events at Halemaumau You are witness to the smaller events when you see the white plume turn brown with ash
This image was taken from the overlook at Jaggar Museum, the park’s prime viewing location for the ongoing summit eruption