Volcano Watch - Italy: where volcanologists go and get gassed together

Release Date:

When your professional gene pool is sufficiently small, as it tends to be in volcanology, you sometimes go a great distance to explore different ideas and find new people in your field to talk with. Such a situation was in evidence recently in Palermo, Italy, during a workshop of an international group called the Commission on the Chemistry of Volcanic Gases (CCVG).

The ancient city of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by a surprise eruption in A.D. 79.

The ancient city of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by a surprise eruption in A.D. 79.

(Public domain.)

This group, established a couple of decades ago by a small cadre of researchers, meets every several years in order to let its members "catch up" with each other and exchange data and thoughts in a traditional science meeting. The CCVG holds its workshops close to active volcanoes so that, between technical sessions, attendees can get together and do volcanic gas fieldwork on the same volcano at the same time. The meetings have been held in Central America, Indonesia, Japan and New Zealand, to name a few places. Because of this, some participants consider the fieldwork exercise to be the high point of the meetings.

In Hawai`i, we're aware of the importance of volcanic gases as they drive Kīlauea's spectacular lava fountains into the air. But we dread the same gases when they drift our way in the form of volcanic air pollution, or vog-a term used in volcanic areas worldwide but coined right here in Hawai`i.

Those of us who monitor the activity of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa pay close attention to gases coming from Hawaiʻian volcanoes for two main reasons. The first is that they are closely tied into an understanding how volcanoes work-or as HVO's founder Thomas Jaggar said so many years ago, "...volcanic gases...are at the heart of the volcano-magma problem." Secondly, volcanic gases and vog in Hawai`i comprise what is usually a low level, but nevertheless pervasive, volcanic hazard.

At the Palermo workshop more than 100 participants from 18 countries lived, ate, and slept volcanic gases for three days before traveling by boat to the island of Vulcano to literally breathe them. Historically, the field workshop concentrated simply on the sampling of volcanic gases by attendees, analyzing the gases back in the home country, then comparing analyses and interpretation through the mail, e-mail or at the following meeting.

In recent years, modern instrumentation has added an expanded dimension to the fieldwork. For example, a number of us attending were able to bring a newly evolving tool: a small, cheap spectrometer about the size of a $3.50 bento. The instrument (not the box lunch), coupled to a sub-notebook computer, allows the user to record the amount of sulfur dioxide gas (SO2) present in the volcanic plume as it passes overhead. At Kīlauea, we use this measure as a way to estimate how much lava is being erupted on the east rift zone.

Back on Sicily near Mount Etna volcano, a generous application of duct tape allowed us to adorn a field car from the local volcano observatory with three such instruments. We collected data by driving along a toll road, looking upward through the plume, and stopping periodically to pay tolls. Other workshop attendees used different instruments in other vehicle-borne and stationary modes to simultaneously record the presence of SO2 and other gases.

We're currently in the process of exchanging and comparing results of these experiments. One of the several goals that we're already reaching in this exercise is a better appreciation of how consistent data collection and interpretation is from country to country. During volcanic crises, volcano observatories help each other out as good neighbors do, so the technology exchange is purposeful in several ways.

The workshop concluded on the crater rim of another volcano, Vesuvius, situated just inland of the Bay of Naples. From this location, workshop participants spotted the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were destroyed by a surprise eruption in A.D. 79. And while Pompeii had around 20,000 residents when it was buried, Naples and the surrounding area at the base of the volcano currently are home to more than three million residents. This was a sobering lesson in the challenge of mitigating volcano hazards in modern times.

All and all, volcanologists learn a lot about their vocation through resourceful use of books, technical journals, video, telephones, and email. But workshops like this one, where gas geeks gather to exchange ideas together, still serve the science well.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. On clear nights, glow is visible from several vents within the crater and on the southwest side of the cone.

The PKK lava tube continues to produce intermittent surface flows from above the top of Pulama pali to the ocean. The East Lae`apuki entry and the East Kamoamoa entries were active as of June 16. Surface flows are intermittently active inland of the entries. The East Lae`apuki entry is the closest activity to the end of Chain of Craters Road, in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, and is located about 4.5 km (3 miles) from the ranger shed. Expect a 2-hour walk each way and bring lots of water.

Stay well back from the sea cliff, regardless of whether there is an active ocean entry or not. Remember-the beaches that sometimes form next to an active bench are just as dangerous as the bench itself. Stay off both, and heed the National Park warning signs.

During the week ending June 15, no earthquakes were reported felt on Hawai`i Island.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the week ending June 15, five earthquakes were recorded beneath the summit area. Only one was deep and long-period in nature. Inflation continues, but at a slightly reduced rate over the last few weeks.