Isle scientists head to Mount St. Helens

In the last few days, two scientists stationed at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) have packed their bags and headed for Mount St. Helens. Geologist Rick Hoblitt is helping to install a radar system that will allow scientists to track ash plumes from Mount St. Helens at night or during rotten weather, when there is no visibility.

Gas geochemist Jeff Sutton will help his colleagues at the Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) measure gas emissions from Mount St. Helens’ crater.

HVO has contributed specially built instruments to help monitor the growing lava dome. Jeff’s luggage includes a weather-proof “suitcase” that contains a gas-monitoring device to detect sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). If conditions allow, it will be lowered from a helicopter to the top of the dome. Powered by a solar panel, the instrument will “wake up” every ten minutes, sniff the gas, and radio the data back to CVO.

At the request of geologists at CVO, a team at HVO quickly assembled a “crater cam” similar to the one that provides pictures of Pu`u `O`o’s crater for the HVO web site. The time-lapse camera is now installed at the mouth of Mount St. Helens’ crater.

If Mount St. Helens continues to rumble, more of us will be heading off for CVO to help out in whatever way we can. In spite of the excitement, our colleagues at CVO are beginning to feel the fatigue that comes with round-the-clock monitoring of an awakening volcano. The constant onslaught of media attention adds to the intensity of the job.

For many of us, helping out at Mount St. Helens seems like the natural thing to do, because that’s where we’re from. Rick and Jeff are in that category, as are four other staff members at HVO. We’re the generation of volcanologists that saw our first active lava at Mount St. Helens, then moved west to Hawai`i.

In 1980, when Mount St. Helens first began to erupt, the flow of expertise was all in one direction — from HVO to the newly established CVO. CVO was largely populated by scientists who had cut their teeth on active volcanoes in Hawai`i — not surprising, because before Mount St. Helens erupted, HVO was the only volcano observatory in the U.S.

HVO alumni are still heavily represented at CVO, where the current Scientist-in-Charge, Elliot Endo, is a native of Hilo. In the last 24 years, however, the tide has turned, and HVO has received an influx of scientists who started their careers at Mount St. Helens and then came to HVO.

A third volcano observatory was added to the mix in 1988, when the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) was established in Anchorage. AVO initially imported many of its volcanologists from HVO and CVO.

The world of volcanology is small, and in times of crisis, it’s good to have people you’ve worked with in the past who are ready and able to come to your aid.

Activity Update

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. Scattered breakouts are taking place within a wide expanse of the PKK flow, mainly between the 1,500-and 2,200-ft elevations. Last week, a small tongue of the PKK flow descended Pulama pali to the 1,000-ft elevation, but it had stagnated by October 8. The eruptive activity in Pu`u `O`o’s crater is weak, with sporadic minor spattering.

Four earthquakes were reported felt on the island during the week ending October 13. On October 7th at 0933 h, residents of Fern Forest felt a M2.3 event located at a depth of 1.2 km (0.7 miles) in lower Puna. On October 9th at 0847 h, residents of Kamuela reported a M2.6 event that occurred at a depth of 17 km (10 miles) between Waiki`i and Waikoloa. At 1030 h on the 11th, a M4.0 earthquake occurred 8 km (5 mi) south of Kilauea’s summit at a depth of 32 km (20 mi). On the 12th at 1317 h, a M4.5 event occurred 6 km (4 mi) S of Pu`u `O`o, at a depth of 9 km (6 mi) and was felt at many parts of the island.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. The summit region continues to inflate slowly. Seismic activity has increased over the past three weeks after decreasing for several weeks in early September. About 110 earthquakes were recorded beneath the summit area during the past week. Nearly all are 40 km (23 miles) or more deep and are the long-period type with magnitudes less than 3.

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