Communicating information during a lava flow crisis

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January 2015 marks the 6th annual Volcano Awareness Month on the Island of Hawai‘i.

Communicating information during a lava flow crisis...

In May 1990, a television crew interviews then-HVO-Scientist-in-Charge Tom Wright as lava flows, visible as fume from burning vegetation in the background, inundate the Kalapana community. Such interviews were an essential means of communicating with the public at that time but today are heavily supplemented by the Internet.

(Public domain.)

Throughout the month, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), in cooperation with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and Hawai‘i County Civil Defense, is offering public talks around the island. For the complete schedule and more information about each talk, please visit HVO's website.

Given the ongoing lava flow in lower Puna, a timely subject for this month's series of Volcano Watch articles is HVO's response to lava flows. The topic is particularly poignant, since 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of lava flows inundating the Kalapana community. Over the next few weeks, we will discuss how HVO responds to threatening lava flows, how that response has changed over the past 25 years, and how information is communicated to the public.

Those of you following the June 27th lava flow are aware that the most current information is posted online, with maps, photos, and daily updates on both the HVO and Hawai‘i County Civil Defense websites. In addition, Civil Defense messages are broadcast on the radio several times each day and HVO's Kīlauea daily update is available as a recorded telephone message at 808-967-8862. Civil Defense and HVO also hold near-daily media briefings to assist local newspapers, online news sources, and television news media (local and national) in their efforts to keep the public informed of the current lava flow activity.

The County of Hawai‘i has also hosted near-weekly meetings in Pāhoa, enabling government and non-government agencies to provide general updates to a group audience and then interact one-on-one with the public to answer individual questions. People unable to attend these meetings can direct questions to HVO and Civil Defense via phone or email.

Diverse approaches to communication allow the public to receive information through a variety of means. Some people rely on the Internet, while others prefer newspapers or favor the community meetings. Not all of these resources were available in 1990—there was no Internet and no 24-hour news cycle. How, then, was information conveyed to the public during the lava flow crisis in Kalapana?

Some of the tools and methods used today were pioneered decades ago, most notably the community meetings, which were employed in 1955 during a Kīlauea East Rift Zone eruption and again in 1990. As lava approached Kalapana 25 years ago, Civil Defense and HVO held frequent community meetings (sometimes several per week!) at Kalapana's Harry K. Brown Park (until it was destroyed by lava) and then in Pāhoa.

During the height of the crisis, HVO geologists were also on site to track lava flow activity and answer questions from residents. Maps were updated by hand and posted at the park so that people could see the extent and direction of the flows. Because large-scale plotters were not available at the time, maps for use in other locations had to be copied in Hilo as blueprints before being displayed.

In 1990, newspaper, television, and radio reports were the most effective means of providing information to large numbers of people, so a vital duty of HVO scientists was to update the activity for the press. Island-wide and beyond, the public eagerly sought reports and maps of the eruption to keep up with the changes.

The biggest game-changer since 1990 is the development of the Internet, through which detailed information, such as maps and photographs from HVO and Civil Defense, can be quickly transmitted. In addition, island residents have created their own online forums to discuss and distribute information—for instance, the Puna message boards and various Facebook and Twitter accounts—many of which alert the community when new data are available.

For many people, important sources of information are maps that show the location of current lava flow activity in relation to nearby communities. Next week, we'll examine how the creation of those maps can be aided by satellite data.

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Volcano Activity Update

Kīlauea's East Rift Zone lava flow remained stalled at its leading tip, about 0.5 km (0.3 miles) upslope from the Pāhoa Marketplace, but breakouts just behind the stalled front continue to be active. Additional breakouts were scattered sparsely over a broad area extending several kilometers (miles) upslope, with one lobe slowly moving in a north-northeast direction. Also, breakouts were active near the abandoned True/Mid-Pacific geothermal well site. There was no significant change in activity at Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō.

The level of the summit lava lake was relatively steady over the past week, and was roughly 50 meters (160 ft) below the rim of the Overlook crater.

There were three earthquakes reported felt in the past week across the Island of Hawai‘i. On January 5, 2015 at 9:29 a.m., HST, a magnitude-2.5 earthquake occurred 14 km (9 mi) south of Pāhala at a depth of 44 km (28 mi). Also on January 5 at 10:08 p.m., a magnitude-3.1 earthquake occurred 15 km (9 mi) northwest of Nā‘ālehu at a depth of 0.5 km (0.3 mi). On January 6 at 3:01 a.m., a magnitude-3.2 earthquake occurred 15 km (9 mi) west of the Waikoloa Resort area at a depth of 45 km (28 mi).