HVO's cat woman scratches her day job

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Extraordinary volcanic eruptions have a way of changing the lives of many people, including scientists and students who find themselves in the middle of an unfolding volcano emergency or later want to study, up close, how a volcano works.

HVO's cat woman scratches her day job...

Christina Heliker fashionably dressed in heat-resistant attire is in her element sampling lava from a skylight. Photo courtesy by G. Brad Lewis.

(Public domain.)

These experiences often become defining moments that lead a scientist to change a career or focus work in a different direction.

Such was the path for Christina Heliker, a geologist and volcanologist for the past 23 years at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Christina retired six months ago, but she has continued working as Scientist Emeritus. Her devotion to the observatory (or maybe to Pu`u `O`o!) and Hawai`i compel her to complete the work that she started years ago on a voluntary basis.

Christina's passion for volcanoes emerged after the spectacular and destructive eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980. She was wrapping up research on glaciers in the Pacific Northwest with the U.S. Geological Survey and had already decided to start a graduate geology program at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

A week after the colossal eruption, Christina showed up at the makeshift volcano monitoring offices in Vancouver, Washington, to help with telephone calls and whatever else was needed. She was soon assigned to work with Dr. Donald Swanson, at the time a widely recognized and experienced volcanologist and staff member of HVO during the Mauna Ulu eruption.

Christina quickly became a regular visitor to the devastated slopes of Mount St. Helens working with Don to survey benchmarks on the outer flanks of the volcano and in the surreal, newly formed horseshoe-shaped crater.

Smaller subsequent eruptions and the growth of a lava dome in the crater provided ideal opportunities to experience and study different styles of eruption, measure the deformation to predict eruptions, and study inclusions, pieces of old rock brought to the surface by magma feeding the dome. The latter became the focus of her graduate thesis.

When the Pu`u `O`o eruption began in 1983, Christina just happened to be in Hawai`i on a working vacation. With experience and reputation from Mount St. Helens, she was able to join colleagues at HVO and record the first series of fissure eruptions that eventually centered on a vent called Pu`u `O`o. This ongoing activity has become the longest-lived eruption along the east rift zone of Kīlauea in more than 600 years.

With her master's thesis completed and a few years of hands-on experience with deformation monitoring, Christina transferred from the Cascades Volcano Observatory to HVO in August 1984. She was to work on the deformation of Hawai`i's active volcanoes, but help was really needed by staff geologist George Ulrich. For the next 23 years, she focused her work on documenting and describing the Pu`u `O`o-Kuapaianaha eruption and the effects on communities and on Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

When lava from the Kupaianaha vent covered Kalapana in 1990, Christina led a rescue effort for pets and animals left behind to fend for themselves against the advancing flows. Affectionately called the "cat woman of Kalapana," she adopted four of the rescued cats and went on to serve on the board for Hawaii Island Humane Society for 11 years, three of which were as its president.

One of the privileges (or burdens) of being staff geologist at HVO is attending to the hundreds of requests from journalists, writers, filmmakers, artists, and many others wanting to witness and report on volcanic activity. One such distinguished author was John McPhee, who wrote about his experiences in Hawai`i with Christina as field guide in his book "The Control of Nature."

"Once you get red-rock fever, you are never the same," McPhee quotes Christina as saying. She still has the fever, and Hawai`i has never been the same.

She helped to change the observatory through her unique style and became mentor to students and volunteers from around the world. She improved the way volcano hazards are understood among Hawai`i island residents and newcomers through many different scientific and popular publications, community presentations, countless interviews, and conscientious work with Hawai`i County Civil Defense.

She also loves to dance. So the staff of HVO says, "Keep on rocking, Christina! Mahalo!"


Volcano Activity Update

This past week, activity levels at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano have remained at background levels. After stopping in early October 2006, extension of the summit caldera resumed at the end of December 2006. The number of earthquakes located in the summit area is low (usually fewer than 10 per day are large enough to locate).

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. On clear nights, glow is visible from several vents within the crater. Lava is fed through the PKK lava tube from its source on the southwest flank of Pu`u `O`o to the ocean. About 1 km south of Pu`u `O`o, the Campout flow branches off from the PKK tube. The PKK and Campout tubes feed two widely separated ocean entries, at East Lae`apuki and East Ka`ili`ili, respectively. Both entries are located inside Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. A few surface flows were active near the sea cliff at the East Lae`apuki entry.

A third entry, fed by an offshoot of the Campout flow, has been active since December 26. It is located at Kamokuna, about midway between the two older entries. In the last week, intermittent breakouts from the Campout tube have continued on the slope of Pulama pali and on the coastal plain.

Access to the sea cliff near the ocean entries is closed, due to significant hazards. The surrounding area, however, is open. If you visit the eruption site, check with the rangers for current updates, and remember to carry lots of water when venturing out onto the flow field.

Three earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island were reported felt within the past week. A magnitude-3.3 earthquake occurred at 6:54 a.m. H.s.t on Friday, February 23, and was located 21 km (13 miles) northwest and offshore of Kailua-Kona at a depth of 12 km (7 miles). A magnitude-2.3 earthquake occurred at 3:21 p.m. on Saturday, February 24, and was located 34 km (21 miles) west and offshore of Kawaihae at a depth of 8 km (5 miles). A magnitude-2.2 earthquake occurred at 11:10 a.m. on Monday, February 26, and was located 12 km (7 miles) northeast of Captain Cook at a depth of 12 km (8 miles).

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, earthquake activity remained low beneath the volcano's summit (no earthquakes were located). Extension of distances between locations spanning the summit, indicating inflation, continues at slow rates.