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Volcano Watch — Scientists share lessons from Kīlauea at "Cities on Volcanoes" conference

September 6, 2018

In 1902, Thomas A. Jaggar, a geologist and founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), visited the scene of one of the most deadly volcanic disasters in modern history: Mount Pelee on the Caribbean Island of Martinique.

lava is rapidly advancing through communities
How do you keep people safe when lava is rapidly advancing through communities? This was just one of the topics addressed during the Cities on Volcanoes 10 meeting in Naples, Italy, last week. Lava flows recently erupted from Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift Zone inundated hundreds of homes in the lower Puna District of Hawai‘i Island. Here, lava enters the Pacific Ocean south of the remaining homes in Kapoho Beach Lots subdivision on June 6, 2018.

Just two weeks before his arrival, tens of thousands of people in the city of St. Pierre perished in an explosive eruption of Mount Pelee. Jaggar was profoundly moved by the devastation he saw and devoted his life to preventing future tragedies like that at St. Pierre. To that end, he established HVO in 1912.

Today, HVO and our sister volcano observatories worldwide continue to share his mission. While great strides in forecasting eruptions and reducing impacts of volcanic activity have been made since 1912, much more remains to be done.

This past week, Sept. 2-7, the international volcanology community came together in one of the world's greatest cities threatened by volcanic activity—Naples, Italy—to share lessons learned and to work together to further realize Jaggar's vision.

The meeting, sponsored by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior, is aptly called "Cities on Volcanoes 10" ( The name refers to the many high-density population centers atop or near our planet's active volcanoes and the fact that it's the 10th in a series of meetings that began in 1997.

It's worth noting that the third Cities on Volcanoes (COV3) meeting was held in Hilo, Hawai‘i, in 2003. Several current HVO staff members were actively involved in hosting that meeting.

According to a University of Bristol (UK) study published in 2017, more than 800 million people worldwide live within 60 miles of a potentially active volcano. This makes volcanic danger something that most countries will eventually face. How well-prepared communities are, and how capable their volcano monitoring infrastructure is, will absolutely impact outcomes.

More than 800 attendees from dozens of countries assembled in Naples for COV10 talks, seminars, workshops, and field trips. HVO sent two delegates to the meeting, where one of the principal themes was "Island volcano hazards"—a topic that Hawaii and HVO certainly know about!

Other COV10 sessions focused on the application of science to the challenges of reducing risk, especially in settings near long-dormant volcanoes. Still other sessions addressed the role of scientists in communicating hazards and how scientists can work more effectively with emergency managers and the public.

The COV10 setting in Naples, located near the famous volcano, Vesuvius, and the equally notorious center known as Campi Flegrei (literally, "the burning fields"), gave attendees a firsthand look at an enormous risk mitigation challenge.

HVO presentations at the COV10 meeting centered on the recent Kīlauea eruption and its impacts. Given the global attention that the volcano's lower East Rift Zone and summit activity received over the past four months, interest was high in the talks and keynote address provided by HVO scientists.

Colleagues from countries that are also threatened by Hawaiian-type eruptions—Italy, Ecuador, Iceland, New Zealand, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few—wanted to know what Kīlauea taught us about basaltic volcanism. Discussion topics included monitoring and communication strategies, forecasting eruptive activity, alarm systems, hazard assessments, infrastructure resilience, and interagency coordination during crisis responses.

Likewise, HVO representatives engaged international peers who have been through similar long-term eruptions to learn from them. We returned to Hawai‘i with ideas on how to lessen eruption impacts to island communities and infrastructure, how to better monitor and communicate ongoing activity and evolving hazards, and how to take maximum scientific advantage of the recent and historically unprecedented behavior at Kīlauea. We also connected with international scientists who may be able to address gaps in Hawaiian volcano monitoring, documentation, or analyses.

Eruptions cannot be prevented. However, decisions made by society before and during an eruption can minimize potential impacts to infrastructure.

Jaggar was the first to realize that Hawaii has much to teach the world about living safely with volcanoes. At the COV10 meeting, hard-won insights of scientists from the USGS and allied universities, as well as first responders, civil authorities, and deeply impacted residents, contributed to the growing body of shared knowledge.

HVO's scientists who participated in the meeting will share what they learned with their colleagues and will also summarize highlights of COV10 in a future Volcano Watch article.

Volcano Activity Update

At Kīlauea's lower East Rift Zone, lava intermittently erupted within the fissure 8 cone during the past week, but no lava flowed beyond the spillway or into the ocean as of Sept. 6. At the summit of the volcano, seismicity and ground deformation were negligible, and a collapse event has not occurred since August 2. However, hazardous conditions remain in both areas. Residents in the lower Puna and Kīlauea summit areas on the Island of Hawai‘i should stay informed and heed Hawai‘i County Civil Defense closures, warnings, and messages ( HVO daily Kīlauea updates are posted at

Sulfur dioxide emission rates at Kīlauea's summit, Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, and lower East Rift Zone are drastically reduced; the combined rate (less than 1,000 tonnes per day) is lower than at any time since late 2007.

At Mauna Loa, HVO geophysical monitoring networks indicate that earthquakes and deformation are near background levels, and the USGS Volcano Alert level for the volcano remains at NORMAL.

HVO continues to closely monitor both Kīlauea and Mauna Loa and will report any significant changes on either volcano.

Two earthquakes with three or more felt reports occurred in Hawai‘i this past week: a magnitude-3.3 quake 17 km (11 mi) south of Fern Acres at 7 km (4 mi) depth on September 5 at 5:30 a.m. HST; and a magnitude-2.8 quake 18 km (11 mi) southeast of Honoka‘a at 12 km (7 mi) depth on August 30 at 07:22 a.m. HST. Continued Kīlauea south flank seismicity is aftershocks of the magnitude-6.9 earthquake on May 4, 2018.

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