Volcano Watch — The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is 100 years old this month

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After almost three years of preparing and fund raising, Thomas A. Jaggar, Jr., arrived at the rim of Kīlauea on January 17, 1912, and began a continuous record of the volcano's activity.

Through the efforts of Jaggar and scores of other scientists since him, that record will reach 100 years on January 17, 2012, the date we celebrate as the Centennial of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). To commemorate this milestone, this month's Volcano Watch articles will focus on the history of HVO.

The observatory's founding was gradual, beginning with a scientific expedition in 1902 to the devastated town of St. Pierre on the Island of Martinique in the West Indies. The volcano of Mt. Pelee had erupted on May 8 killing 30,000 people, the entire population of the town, after multiple warning signs. Jaggar saw first-hand the destruction wrought by this volcanic event and it was a life-changing moment for the Harvard instructor.

"As I look back on the Martinique expedition, I know what a crucial point in my life it was ... I realized that the killing of thousands of persons by subterranean machinery totally unknown to geologists and then unexplainable was worthy of a life work," wrote Jaggar in his autobiography 50 years later.

He spent the next few years advocating for the establishment of earth observatories. Jaggar reasoned that continuous observation to identify possible precursors was far more useful than expeditions that studied the destruction after it had happened.

By early 1909, Jaggar was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He decided to visit Japan to see how they were implementing seismic observatories in an effort "to prevent disaster by earthquake." On the way to Japan, he stopped in Honolulu, where he gave a talk on his experiences with volcanoes and earthquakes over the past 7 years. He also floated the idea of establishing the first earth observatory at Kīlauea volcano.

Convinced that it would increase tourism, as well as add to scientific knowledge, Lorrin Thurston and other businessmen were eager to support this idea and an agreement was struck with Jaggar acting on behalf of MIT. The Honolulu group agreed to raise funds for the operating expenses of the new observatory, and Jaggar returned to Boston.

MIT obligations prevented Jaggar from returning to Hawai‘i for two years. Early in 1911, he arranged for Frank Perret, a famous volcanologist who studied Mount Vesuvius in Italy, and E.S. Shepherd, a high temperature expert from the Carnegie Laboratories, to accompany him to Kīlauea and start the observatory work.

But Jaggar unexpectedly had to cancel his travel plans, so Perret and Shepherd arrived at Kīlauea on their own to measure the temperature of molten lava, construct an observation hut at the rim of Halema‘uma‘u Crater, and study the active lava lake within the crater. Perret wrote six weekly updates about the activity at Halema‘uma‘u that were published in Honolulu newspapers.

Reinvigorated by Perret's performance over the summer, the Honolulu businessmen formally organized a committee of support on October 5, 1911, and guaranteed a sum of $5,000 per year for 5 years—if MIT would agree to let Jaggar come to Hawai‘i to set up the observatory. MIT granted Jaggar a leave of absence from his teaching duties and he arrived in Hawai‘i in January 1912, ready for work.

Next week, we'll share how HVO founder Thomas Jaggar began 100 years of continuous volcano monitoring at Kīlauea.

In addition to HVO's centennial, January 2012 marks the third annual Volcano Awareness Month. Throughout the month, HVO, in cooperation with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, will offer a number of volcano awareness activities around Hawai‘i Island, including public lectures, guided hikes, and other informative programs. A full calendar of Volcano Awareness Month events is posted on HVO's website.

This coming week, HVO scientists will provide an update on Kīlauea's summit eruption in the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park’s Visitor Center on January 10, a public presentation about Hawai‘i's active volcanoes in the Kealakehe High School cafeteria on January 11, and a talk about tracking Kīlauea's ongoing eruptions at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo on January 12. Daily hikes will also be offered in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park by Park rangers. Details about these activities are available at hvo.wr.usgs.gov or by calling 808-967-8844.

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Volcano Activity Update

A lava lake present within the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook vent during the past week resulted in night-time glow that was visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook. The lake, which is about 100–125 m (330–410 ft) below the floor of Halema‘uma‘u Crater and visible by HVO's Webcam, rose and fell slightly during the week in response to a series of large deflation-inflation cycles.

On Kīlauea's east rift zone, surface lava flows on the coastal plain stalled last weekend, and lava stopped entering the ocean at West Ka‘ili‘ili, in response to the deflation-inflation cycles at the summit. New breakouts started near the top of the pali last weekend, but a lack of glow visible in monitoring Webcams since then indicates that these flows have markedly decreased or stopped (as of Thursday, January 5). Nighttime incandescence from the September 21 (Peace Day) fissure, and from vents in the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō crater, suggests the continued presence of lava not far below the crater floor.

One earthquake beneath Hawai‘i Island was reported felt this past week. A magnitude-3.7 earthquake occurred at 3:32 a.m., HST, on Tuesday, January 3, 2012, and was located 22 km (14 mi) east of Papa‘ikou at a depth of 44 km (28 mi).