Volcano Watch — HVO exchanges scientists with French Volcano Observatory

Release Date:

In late August, volcano scientists from around the world gathered in Waikōloa, Hawai‘i, and shared what they have learned about how Hawaiian volcanoes work. Within that group were four scientists from the Observatoire Volcanologique du Piton de la Fournaise (OVPF), a sister observatory monitoring a frequently active French volcano in the Indian Ocean.

OVPF's presentations were about Piton de La Fournaise (PdF), a volcano that is similar to Hawai‘i Island's Kīlauea Volcano in many ways: PdF erupts often and usually emits lava flows but also has explosive eruptions; it is located within a National Park; it is one of two volcanoes that form La Reunion Island; and it is susceptible to large landslides that can generate local tsunamis. So while the OVPF presentations were about a volcano half a world away, they could have been talking about Kīlauea.

As important as the similarities between our volcanoes are, the differences are equally important. Kīlauea's eruption rates are about 10 times those of PdF. La Reunion Island is, however, one-fourth the size of Hawai‘i Island and has more than four times as many residents. While the hazards (lava flows, earthquakes, and other volcanic activity) may be lower at PdF than Kīlauea, the higher population density means that the risks (the likelihood of people being affected by the volcanic activity) may be comparable.

The OVPF scientists were in Hawai‘i for two purposes: (1) to attend the meeting and learn what is being done to understand Hawaiian volcanoes; and (2) to meet with HVO scientists to learn how we monitor Kīlauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes.

OVPF, founded in 1979, is a small observatory with only 9 permanent staff members (compared to about 25 at HVO). It is still growing, and OVPF scientists want to learn from HVO's successes and mistakes over our past century of existence. So, we spent a few days working out mutual priorities for the exchange of technologies and volcano expertise over the next five years.

The HVO–OVPF discussions mostly focused on how we get our respective jobs done. HVO technicians offered lots of advice on field installation and maintenance methods developed for many technologies over many years. In this way, working together can significantly speed the development of state-of-the-art monitoring networks on PdF.

We also talked about the differences in the way we communicate with emergency managers. HVO issues warnings and other information directly to local emergency managers, who take action to keep people safe. OVPF issues their warnings to the local government, which must send the information to Paris before it is sent back to La Reunion for action. Understandably, "unofficial" communications directly to the local gendarmes have been necessary to get timely evacuations started.

In addition, there is increasing pressure to promote tourism on PdF, which is in conflict with OVPF's efforts to promote understanding of the volcanic hazards. This aspect reminded many HVO folks of the removal of the Hawaiian warrior signs that used to mark island lava flows with the year each flow was erupted.

The OVPF scientists were not the first Reunionites to seek relationships with Hawaiians. Last October, La Reunion President Didier Robert visited Hawai‘i Island to promote "sister park" status between Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Reunion National Park and to gather ideas on how to increase tourism to PdF and the island. President Didier also discussed the possibility of Sister City relationships with Hawai‘i Island Mayor Billy Kenoi during his visit.

Much of this inter-island cooperation is the result of efforts by part-time Volcano resident Alain Gerente. Gerente, a well-known videographer of Piton de la Fournaise eruptions, is a mathematician who was on the faculty at the University of Science on La Reunion. He has been a tireless supporter of closer relations between his two island homes—Hawai‘i and La Reunion—which have so much in common.

Through the joint efforts of HVO and OVPF scientists, individuals like Alain Gerente, parks, and island governments, we all hope to benefit from our combined experience and improve monitoring and hazard assessment and communication for basaltic island volcanoes. The end result will be resident and tourist populations alike living with and experiencing active volcanoes safely.


Volcano Activity Update

A lava lake within the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook vent resulted in night-time glow that was visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and by HVO's Webcam during the past week. Deflation started last Sunday (August 26) and was ongoing as of this writing (Thursday, August 30). The lava lake level dropped slowly in response, removing support for the rim of the lake which, in turn, led to several collapses of the vent walls. Occasional rise-fall cycles caused the lava level to rise slightly for periods of hours, even as its overall level was dropping.

On Kīlauea's east rift zone, lava flows on the coastal plain and pali, relatively weak for months, declined in activity even further with the ongoing deflation. Little surface activity remained as of Thursday, and the flows may stop completely if deflation continues. The level of the small lava pond in the northeastern pit on the floor of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō dropped with the deflation. Poor weather during a helicopter overflight on Wednesday prevented views into the pit to assess the distance of the pond below the crater floor. A second pit, on the south side of the crater, enlarged dramatically before sunrise on Thursday, when the crater floor between the pit and the adjacent incandescent opening collapsed. The ongoing deflation may lead to more small collapses, causing additional widening of the pits.

One earthquake was reported felt in the last week below the island of Hawai‘i. On August 25, 2012, at 2:25 a.m., HST, a magnitude-3.9 earthquake occurred and was located 18 km (11 mi) southeast of Nā‘ālehu at a depth of 38 km (24 miles).