Observatory welcomes new head scientist

Jim Kauahikaua has been named the new Scientist-in-Charge (SIC) of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, starting October 3. Kauahikaua is currently a geophysicist on the HVO staff, and he is the first resident staff member selected for the SIC position since the mid-1970s. Kauahikaua is a native of Hawai`i and graduated from The Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu.

Kauahikaua graduated from Pomona College in 1973 with a B.A. in geology and returned to the islands to obtain a M.S. degree in geophysics at University of Hawai`i at Manoa in 1976. His Master’s work focused on the Hawai`i Geothermal Exploration Project, where he first met scientists at HVO.

He started his professional earth science career as a USGS minority intern in 1976 with the Branch of Electromagnetism and Geomagnetism in Denver, where he early distinguished himself by showing up one morning after a 6-inch snowfall wearing slippahs. After a 1-year assignment in Denver, he returned to the University of Hawai`i, completing his PhD in 1983. with continued support from the USGS, on the electrical structure of Kilauea. In 1988 Kauahikaua joined the HVO staff as a geophysicist.

Kauahikaua’s current studies include the density, magnetic, and electrical resistivity structure of the Hawaiian Islands. The results of these studies bear directly on how the islands formed and evolved over time. Such indirect methods of study are necessary to “see” inside the earth.

His ongoing study of lateral variations in gravity helps define the location and orientation of hidden rift zones on and around the Island of Hawai`i. His gravity work was key to a recent interpretation that the offshore Hilo Ridge is a rift zone of Kohala Volcano, not Mauna Kea. He is also examining the changes in gravity over time on Mauna Loa to see if magma is intruding into the volcano.

Electrical resistivity studies, often combined with gravity studies, are relevant to understanding ground water hydrology on the island. This work bears on whether groundwater is perched behind faults in Kona. He has also found that the Koa`e fault system south of Kilauea’s caldera acts as a groundwater barrier, the water north of the fault system standing at a higher elevation than that south of the system.

In recent years, Kauahikaua has partly morphed into a physical volcanologist, taking special interest in the formation and evolution of lava flows and lava tubes, applying geophysical techniques to map them. In these studies Kauahikaua has worked particularly closely with Ken Hon, geology professor at UHH.

His work at Hualalai suggests that the youngest lava flows were emplaced at rates typical of those at Mauna Loa, rather than at far higher rates as once thought. This interpretation bears directly on hazards from Hualalai eruptions. And, Kauahikaua has applied the results of his studies to understand the emplacement of unusual lava flows (komatiites) in Australia, billions of years old and hosts for valuable mineral deposits.

Using digital elevation models, Kauahikaua has creatively applied the concept of watershed to tell where lava will travel from a given point of eruption. He has prepared such a “lavashed” map for use during eruptions, particularly from Mauna Loa. He also used statistical methods to evaluate the probability of a lava flow entering the Kulani prison site, where the governor was suggesting a large expansion of the facility. Kauahikaua is currently expanding this study to prepare a map showing the probability of lava inundation for the island.

Kauahikaua is well known on the island for his involvement in Na Pua No`eau and other student groups. He is helping devise educational curricula for elementary school students in Hawai`i and Alaska, in cooperation with the University of Alaska. And, in his spare time, Kauahikaua sings in the Volcano Festival and Kamehameha Alumni choruses.

Don Swanson, outgoing SIC, is returning to research. His original 4-year tenure stretched into 7.75 years, and he is anxious to devote full time to completing studies of Kilauea’s explosive history and the development of the caldera. He is moving into the partly renovated basement of HVO to be nearer Kilauea’s magma reservoir.

Activity Update

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues weakly. The Banana flow is no longer active. Scattered breakouts are taking place within a wide expanse of the PKK flow east of the Banana flow, and one small tongue of lava has been moving down Pulama pali since September 22. The eruptive activity in Pu`u `O`o’s crater is weak, with sporadic minor spattering.

No earthquakes were reported felt on the island during the week ending September 29.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. The summit region continues to inflate slowly. Seismic activity continues but at a lower level than during the past several weeks. Only 23 earthquakes were recorded beneath the summit area during the past week. Nearly all of the earthquakes of this ongoing activity are of long-period type, have magnitudes less than 3, and are deep, 40 km (23 miles) or more.

This article was written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory and is republished by HawaiiNews.com with permission.

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