Volcano Watch — Volcano observatory was founded in 1912

Release Date:

The U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is located adjacent to the Thomas Jaggar Museum on the rim of Kīlauea caldera. The Observatory was founded in 1912 as a laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Thomas A. Jaggar, a pioneering volcanologist.
 

The U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is located adjacent to the Thomas Jaggar Museum on the rim of Kīlauea caldera. The Observatory was founded in 1912 as a laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Thomas A. Jaggar, a pioneering volcanologist.

The original observatory was located on the rim of Kīlauea caldera at the present site of the Volcano House Hotel, where the original seismic vault still exists. When Kīlauea summit was made part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1916, the Observatory was moved to Uwekahuna Bluff, near its present location. It was not until 1948 that the Observatory was permanently placed under the direction of the U.S. Geological Survey. The present buildings were occupied in 1987 and marked the 75th anniversary of the inception of the Observatory. Jaggar believed that understanding the volcanoes was critical to minimizing loss of property and life from volcanic eruptions. Our goals today remain founded in that same belief.

The main functions of the Observatory are monitoring, hazard assessment, and research. The staff of the Observatory continuously monitor seismic activity, ground deformation, type and amounts of gas emissions, changes in electrical, magnetic, and gravitational attraction, eruptive style, lava chemistry, and lava flowemplacement in order to provide timely information to the Hawaii County Civil Defense and the National Park Service. This monitoring program is aimed at tracking magma as it moves underground towards its eruption site and in locating large earthquakes rapidly to facilitate emergency response.

The assessment of geological hazards is focused mainly on volcanic and earthquake hazards and draws on a combination of the monitoring data and geological mapping to determine the hazard levels for different areas. These hazards assessments affect decisions ranging from land use and construction style to emergency preparedness. The research function at the Observatory is aimed at developing better understanding of volcanic and earthquake processes. It is only through developing and testing new ideas about the processes that drive the volcanic systems that we can increase our ability to provide reliable and timely information to public officials and the community. Much of the research undertaken here has applications at other volcanoes.

In addition, equipment and monitoring techniques have been, and continue to be, developed and tested here; these are deployed worldwide at dangerous volcanoes. Many of the staff here also respond to volcanic crises worldwide as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program, funded by the State Department.

The ultimate goal of the research program is to understand volcanic processes well enough to be able to accurately forecast future activity. New technologies allow us to determine aspects of the volcanic systems that could not be determined in the past. An example is the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine the precise locations of points on the ground. This system allows us to determine rates and direction of ground movement in ways that simply were not possible before. Today we are applying this technology to gain an understanding of the rates, and variation through time, of movement of the south flank of Kīlauea towards the sea.

There will always be new challenges because scientists have observed the active volcanoes for only a short time compared to the timescale of geologic change. For example, in historic times, there has not been an eruption along the rift zones that lasted as long as the present one near Pu'u 'O'o. This lack of precedent for long-lived eruptions means that we are constantly learning new things about how Kīlauea works, but it also means that our forecasts about future events are less certain than if we had more experience with similar events.

The geologic record of activity at Kīlauea includes many events for which there is only descriptive information, such as the estimated magnitude-7.9 earthquake in 1868, or only interpretation based on geologic mapping, such as the extent of the last summit overflows and the magnitude of large caldera-forming explosive eruptions. To fully evaluate the hazards posed by the active volcanoes, we utilize the long-term history of events and the current activity that we monitor.