Categorized | Featured, Sci-Tech, Volcano

Volcano Watch: Puna Resiliency Block Party affirms value of lava flow community meetings

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

One year ago, the now infamous June 27th lava flow was headed toward the middle of Pāhoa and threatening to cross the main village road and cut off Highway 130 for thousands of residents. During this time, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) was forecasting that, if the flow continued, it could also cut Kahakai Boulevard and overrun Keonepoko Elementary School.

Fortunately, at the same time, the supply of lava from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent on Kīlauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone was decreasing. Tiltmeters at the summit of Kīlauea were recording a deflationary trend, which suggested that less magma from the summit reservoir was getting to Puʻu ʻŌʻō and ultimately, that less lava was reaching the flow front in Pāhoa.

As a result, the tip of the flow stalled about 155 m (170 yards) from Pāhoa Village Road on October 30, 2014. This was because lava was no longer traveling through the tube all the way to the flow front. The delicate balance of lava supply needed to continue growing the lava tube had tipped to the town’s favor.

The stalled front and apparent clogging of the lowermost part of the tube instead resulted in upslope breakouts of lava, spawning numerous surface flows that widened the flow field in the following weeks.

Before the June 27th lava flow became a threat, many people in the Puna District—long-term residents and recent arrivals alike—were unfamiliar with the vocabulary of volcanology. Summit deflation and inflation, lines of steepest descent, lava breakouts, and flow advance rates were just abstract concepts initially. But residents quickly became well-versed in these terms, making it easier for them to realize the unpredictable nature of slow-moving pāhoehoe flows.

As the lava flow approached Pāhoa, the questions asked by the community were difficult to answer with certainty and required full explanations instead of short soundbites.

How far would the flow eventually travel? When will lava arrive at this or that location? How wide will the flow spread? How long will Puʻu ʻŌʻō erupt lava into the tube? Is “my” house going to be covered by lava? How will scientists know when the June 27th flow will stop?

HVO scientists answered these questions and shared new information about the flow in all kinds of ways. They provided written updates, images, and maps of the flow’s activity, location, and likely flow path(s) on the HVO website (hvo.wr.usgs.gov), and responded to hundreds of individual questions by telephone and email through askHVO@usgs.gov.

A Kilauea June 27th Lava Flow community meeting at Pahoa High School on September 9 2014 during a presentation by the USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Hawaii 24/7 File Photo

A Kilauea June 27th Lava Flow community meeting at Pahoa High School on September 9 2014 during a presentation by the USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Hawaii 24/7 File Photo

But perhaps most importantly, nearly all of HVO’s staff, at one time or another, participated in dozens of Puna District community meetings that were organized by the Hawai‘i County Mayor’s office between August 24, 2014, and January 22, 2015.

At these meetings, HVO summarized the flow activity and discussed lava flow behavior, Hawaiian volcanism, and volcano hazards through an illustrated slide presentation. Afterwards, HVO staff interacted with residents through one-on-one discussions at map stations set up around the room.

Without a doubt, these meetings were vital for HVO scientists, emergency management officials, business leaders, community organizations, elected government representatives, and hundreds of residents at a time to listen to each other. Through these interactive discussions, people developed a common language, which helped everyone better understand the flow activity and the ways in which response plans were being developed and implemented. Online broadcasts of the community meetings allowed even more people to listen in.

In September 2014, during one of many community meetings held in Pāhoa to address concerns about Kīlauea Volcano’s June 27th lava flow, USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist Kevan Kamibayashi points out the flow’s advance as of that week. These one-on-one interactions with Puna residents were an effective means of answering specific questions and providing factual, up-to-date information about the lava flow. USGS photo.

In September 2014, during one of many community meetings held in Pāhoa to address concerns about Kīlauea Volcano’s June 27th lava flow, USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist Kevan Kamibayashi points out the flow’s advance as of that week. These one-on-one interactions with Puna residents were an effective means of answering specific questions and providing factual, up-to-date information about the lava flow. USGS photo.

The meetings helped Puna communities to appreciate the challenges and uncertainties HVO scientists faced in trying to forecast lava-flow paths and advance rates. Residents were able to speak directly with scientists, emergency managers, and representatives from other government agencies about the lava flow activity and their individual concerns. Everyone was able to learn of plans for the worst-case scenario, all the while hoping for the best possible outcome.

The Puna Resiliency Block Party in Pāhoa this past weekend was welcomed by HVO scientists as a time to visit once again with Puna residents, and to talk about Kīlauea’s eruptions and ongoing hazards, as well as Mauna Loa’s recent unrest. It was also a reminder of the ways in which the community meetings helped us develop a common volcano language and understanding. Mahalo Pāhoa! We appreciate your resiliency!

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