Volcano Watch — The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory will be ninety years old in January

Release Date:

Early next month, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) will commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of its founding. On January 17, 1912, Thomas A. Jaggar arrived at the rim of Kīlauea caldera to devote the next 28 years of his life as Director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

HVO was the creation of Thomas Jaggar, who was head of the Geology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).

After being sent by the U.S. government to investigate the devastating effects of two eruptions in the Caribbean in 1902, Jaggar was motivated to find a way to mitigate this destruction. He spent the next 10 years searching for an ideal location to establish an observatory to support systematic, ongoing studies of volcanic and seismic activity.

Kīlauea Volcano was an obvious selection, and Jaggar listed eight reasons for his choice: (1) Kīlauea was the safest known volcano in the world: (2) Kīlauea and Mauna Loa were isolated, more than 3,000 km (2,000 mi) away from complications other volcanic centers might impose; (3) Kīlauea was reasonably accessible -- it could be reached by a 50-km (30-mi) road from Hilo harbor or a day's sail from Honolulu; (4) the central Pacific was good for recording distant earthquakes and was served by good transportation east or west; (5) the climate was uniform, with air clear enough for astronomy; (6) small earthquakes were frequent and easily studied; (7) hot and cold underground waters were available for both agricultural and scientific purposes; (8) "The territory is American, and these volcanoes are famous in the history of science for their remarkably liquid lavas and nearly continuous activity." All of these conditions hold true today (although some will argue that, with more rain and vog, reason # 5 has changed) and validate Jaggar's selection.

The first permanent structure of HVO was a seismic vault that was dug at the site of the present Volcano House hotel in February 1912. The main HVO building was erected over the vault, with the ceiling of the vault serving as part of the floor of the Observatory. HVO occupied this location until 1940, when all the buildings, except the seismic vault, were razed to make way for the new Volcano House. The seismic vault, named the Whitney Laboratory of Seismology after the M.I.T. foundation that initially funded HVO, is still located beneath the hotel.

Construction of the second Observatory, at a site 180 m (600 ft) in from the rim of Kīlauea caldera, began in 1940, but HVO did not occupy this building until 1942. In 1948 HVO left this building and moved to its present location at Uwekahuna Bluff. The second HVO building is now the Headquarters and Visitor Center of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

A geochemistry wing was added to HVO in 1958, and a new Observatory building was constructed in 1986. The old HVO structure was remodeled to become the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum.

Besides having multiple locations in its 90-year history, HVO has had a number of funding sources, both private and public. HVO was originally funded by the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association (H.V.R.A.), a group of local businessmen led by Lorrin A. Thurston. For five years, until 1917, M.I.T., through the Whitney Fund, was a major contributor to H.V.R.A., which continued to provide funds to HVO until the 1940s. The University of Hawai`i was also an early contributor and funded HVO to 1942.

HVO became a federal institution in 1919, when the U.S. Weather Bureau assumed fiscal sponsorship. The Weather Bureau administered HVO from 1919 to 1924, when the Observatory became a part of the U.S. Geological Survey's Section of Volcanology. The USGS fell on lean times during the Depression, and the National Park Service took responsibility of HVO in 1935. The USGS resumed management of HVO in 1947 and continues to administer it today.

The close relationship of HVO with Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, and the very location of HVO within the Park, often causes confusion that we are a part of the National Park Service. While we were at one time, we are now a part of the U.S. Geological Survey, and unless lean times return, will continue to be.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity of Kīlauea Volcano continued unabated at the Pu`u `O`o vent during the past week. Lavamoves away from the vent toward the ocean in a network of tubes and descends Pulama pali in several separate tubes. A pulse of magma that entered the system on December 9 did not have a noticeable effect on the eruption. One new surface breakout was detected above the pali. Despite the heavy rains, a surface flow was observed descending Pulama pali and fanning out at the base. Many short flows from breakouts of the Kamoamoa and Kupapa`u tube systems are seen in the coastal flats. Lava continues to enter the ocean only in two locations: Kamoamoa and the area east of Kupapa`u.

The public is reminded that the benches of the ocean entries are very hazardous, with possible collapses of the unstable new land. The steam clouds are extremely hot, highly acidic, and laced with glass particles. Swimming at the black sand beaches of the benches can be a blistering or even deadly venture.

Three earthquakes were reported felt during the week ending on December 13. Residents of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna subdivisions felt an earthquake at 5:49 a.m. on December 8. The magnitude-2.6 earthquake was located 3 km (1.8 mi) east of Pu`ulena Crater at a shallow depth. Another earthquake an hour later from nearly the same location was felt by a resident of the Lanipuna subdivision. The magnitude-1.8 earthquake was located at a depth of 2.6 km (1.6 mi). An earthquake associated with a pulse of magma that rapidly entered the shallow reservoir system of Kīlauea Volcano was felt by area residents at 9:42 a.m. on December 9. The magnitude-2.7 earthquake was located 4 km (2.4 mi) southeast of Kīlauea summit at a depth of 2.4 km (1.4 mi).