UH Hilo geologists’ groundbreaking lava research during 2018 Kīlauea eruption published in leading journal

For the innovative research, scientists examined magma in near real-time during the eruption at Kīlauea Volcano’s lower east rift zone in May 2018. The collected data proved invaluable to both the scientists and emergency response teams on the ground. 

By Susan Enright

Looking into the distance from a fork in the road. both forks have encroaching red-hot lava advancing on the roads.
A panoramic view of fissure 7 from the intersection of Leilani and Makamae Streets in the Leilani Estates subdivision, Hawai‘i Island. This photo was taken at 06:01 a.m. local time, on 5/5/18. Photo credit: USGS.
Cheryl Gansecki looks closely at lava sample.
Cheryl Gansecki examines recently collected lava during Kilauea’s 2018 eruption, May 2018.

Using nontraditional techniques developed over years to study red-hot lava in real time, a team of geologists from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo collected data during the 2018 Kīlauea eruption that gave scientists a deeper understanding about the origins of the flow. In turn, the collected data helped emergency response teams better plan for protecting the public from the destructive event.

The research was led by Cheryl Gansecki, affiliate faculty of geology at UH Hilo, with co-authors Steven Lundblad and Ken Hon, both geology professors at UH Hilo, R. Lopaka Lee and Carolyn Parcheta from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and Thomas Shea, an assistant professor of earth sciences at UH Mānoa. The findings are published in the Dec. 6 issue of the journal Science: “The tangled tale of Kilauea’s 2018 eruption as told by geochemical monitoring.

“We can’t see what goes on inside a volcano, so geochemistry is one of the tools used to decipher it,” says Gansecki. “Our team has been working for years on ways to get this information available in near-real time so it was very exciting to have it used successfully during a volcanic crisis.”

In the groundbreaking work, the scientists examined magma in real time during the eruption at Kīlauea Volcano’s lower east rift zone in May 2018. The geologists gathered samples as the lava was erupting, leading to near real-time analysis of the lava’s chemistry that showed the magma’s history, which can affect eruptive behavior. Traditionally magma is not studied until after an eruption is over. But the May 2018 work was the first time scientists tried to look at the chemistry at the same time the volcano was erupting. The samples were collected daily from the flows, bagged and dated, and brought back to the Hilo campus for immediate analysis.

During the eruption, the research team “employed a rapid routine for geochemical analysis of lava, developed over 6 years of monitoring the prior continuous eruption at Kīlauea,” state the researchers in the introduction to the study. The techniques created a near real-time data stream in eruption monitoring never before seen, providing an unparalleled opportunity for researchers to understand changes in magma characteristics during a rapidly evolving eruptive crisis.

Specifically, the researchers used rapid energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence analysis to measure diagnostic elements in lava samples within a few hours of collection during the 2018 Kīlauea eruption. This proved invaluable to both the scientists and the emergency response teams on the ground. “The geochemical data can give us lava temperature, which affects viscosity and therefore how fast lava can flow,” explains Gansecki. “We were able to notify the monitoring teams of changing lava temperatures in advance of changing hazards during the eruption.”

The team, Gansecki further explains, also identified, in near-real time, “interactions between older, colder, stored magma leftover from previous east rift zone eruptions and hotter magma delivered during dike emplacement.”

The study suggests that at least two bodies of stored magma were forced to the surface during the May event, including the first known eruption of an andesite (a type of volcanic rock) on Kīlauea, and that magma from these bodies mixed with the newer intruding magma. By analyzing the composition of crystals carried in the magma, the researchers were also able to identify the presence of a much hotter component they believe came from deep in the summit magma or rift system.

In May 2019, Gansecki and Lundblad were awarded the 2019 Koichi and Taniyo Taniguchi Award for Excellence and Innovation at UH Hilo for their work developing and implementing the rapid-analysis protocol.

Marcia Sakai, Ken Hon, heryl Gansecki, Steve Lundblad. and Toby Taniguchi stand for group photo.
(From left) Marcia Sakai, Interim Chancellor; Ken Hon, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs; geologists Cheryl Gansecki and Steven Lundblad, winners of the 2019 Koichi and Taniyo Taniguchi Award for Excellence and Innovation; and Toby Taniguchi representing the Taniguchi family, at award ceremonies on May 3, 2019. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Media release.