Volcano Watch — Hawaii's HVO—serving the world

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In Hawaii, the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is known for its work in Hawaiian volcano monitoring and hazards assessment and in conveying information to the public and to other government agencies.

In Hawaii, the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is known for its work in Hawaiian volcano monitoring and hazards assessment and in conveying information to the public and to other government agencies.

Beyond Hawaii, however, HVO is widely recognized, not only for research on Hawaiian volcanic processes,but also for its international activities in volcano monitoring.

The Observatory has an international reputation for hosting foreign scientists and technicians who monitor volcanoes all over the world, and HVO's staff frequently travel to other volcano observatories around the world. Visiting scientists come to HVO from many countries to learn from our staff and to conduct their own volcano experiments and observations of Kīlauea's gentle activity.

In the past few weeks, we have been host to scientists from Italy, Great Britain, Australia, and Japan.

Besides hosting foreign scientists, HVO is increasingly being called upon to provide expertise for volcanic assessments worldwide. In the past decade, present or past HVO staff have travelled to evaluate volcanic activity and volcanic deposits in Australia, Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Northern Marianas, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, and, most recently, Rwanda and Zaire in Africa.

Most of these missions are responses to volcanic crises, and most involve formal requests to the USGS from the U.S. State Department. The recent trip to Zaire by HVO staff member Jack Lockwood is an example of such a crisis response.

When political refugees began to pour into eastern Zaire from neighboring Rwanda, "temporary" camps were quickly established on barren, uninhabited lava flows on the slopes of the Zairian volcanoes Nyiragongo and Nyamiagira (the productive lands in less hazardous areas are privately owned). Nyiragongo had begun to erupt in late June, and Nyamiagira in early July. Although the Nyamiagira eruption ended by mid-July, Nyiragongo continued to erupt episodically within its summit crater.

No one was overly concerned until August 10, when a particularly large summit eruption illuminated the night sky above the city of Goma, center of the refugee operations. A call for help went out immediately to USGS from the U.S. State Department (USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance), and Lockwood departed for Africa on August 15 (as soon as visas could be arranged). He was joined by Tom Casadevall, another USGS volcanologist stationed in Denver, and they travelled to Uganda, where they boarded a US military plane for the flight to Goma. Because no one knew how serious the situation might be, the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Team at the Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) was also mobilized, prepared to depart for Zaire if needed.

Nyiragongo (like Mauna Loa, one of the "Decade Volcanoes," singled out for special study by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior) is infamous for its extremely fluid lava flows, which can travel at speeds of over 50 MPH on steep slopes. Such a fast-moving flow killed several hundred people in 1977, so we knew the threat was very real.

When the two-person advance team arrived in Goma, Nyiragongo was quiet but began to erupt again that first night, casting a red glow over Goma and the refugee camps. A team of French volcanologists had just arrived, and the U.S. team joined the French one for a military helicopter flight to Nyiragongo's 12,000-foot summit at first light.

The summit is cut by a vertical-walled, half-mile-diameter crater, the floor of which was completely covered by fresh lava. Lockwood spent a sublime (but cold, wet, and windy) evening at the summit, observing spectacular lava fountains dance and explode on the crater floor 1,500 feet below. The situation did not appear dangerous for the moment, however, so the volcanologists and French security troops climbed down Nyiragongo the next morning to join other volcanologists arriving from Japan and elsewhere in Zaire.

The next few days were spent evaluating specific hazards at the wretched refugee camps and meeting with other team members to compare observations and plan future strategy. The hazards assessed during this brief period included lava flows, airborne volcanic ash, carbon dioxide emissions from Lake Kivu, earthquakes, explosive secondary eruptions (should lava enter Lake Kivu), and mazukus.

Mazukus, from the Swahili word referring to specific areas associated with "evil winds," are dry gas vents which emit potentially lethal amounts of carbon dioxide; most are located near the shores of Lake Kivu. The assembled volcanologists agreed that the situation was very serious in the long-term, but that the refugees were not in immediate danger, and word was passed to the crisis team waiting at CVO that they could unpack and did not need to travel to Zaire at that time. Lockwood returned home and began to prepare reports to document future volcano monitoring needs in Zaire.

Meanwhile, as we described last week, volcanoes have begun to erupt at Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. Three USGS volcanologists from the Cascade Volcano Observatory in Washington State are on their way to assist in installing new seismic stations to replace those destroyed in the eruption. Scientists and technicians at HVO and at USGS offices at the Alaska and Cascade Volcano Observatories must always be ready to travel on short notice.

There are not many dull moments around a volcano observatory—if one's "home volcano" isn't requiring our attention, another crisis may develop elsewhere on the globe, requiring our assistance. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory thus serves not only Hawaii, but also the world.