UH Hilo researchers return to Kīlauea as eruption continues

Steve Lundblad, professor of geology at UH Hilo, leads a team of volunteer geology students and alumni on the exploratory field work, the continuation of a 55-year ongoing study. 

Pictured is a group of researchers out on the lava fields using measuring equipment.
Eleven days prior to the new eruption in Halemaʻumaʻu crater that started on Sept. 29, 2021, a group measures the Mauna Iki trail on Sept. 18. Geology crew in photo: Prof. Steve Lundblad (left at the level), Hannah Steiner recording, Pomona College Professor Emeritus Rick Hazlett who is an affiliate professor at UH Hilo, geology student David Quinones (right on the leveling rod), exchange student Chloe Cochram and U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist Drew Downs scouting next positions. Photo by UH Hilo geology major Sadie Nguyen.

By Jordan Hemmerly.

Geology students at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are set to continue their historically important ground studies near the Kīlauea caldera following the start on Sept. 29 of a new eruption at the westernmost vent of Halemaʻumaʻu crater.

Steve Lundblad, a professor of geology, is leading a team of volunteer students and alumni contributing to the exploratory field work. The team, whose work was interrupted by the recent eruption in the crater, plans to continue their collective contributions to a long-standing data set that measures change in ground motion south of Kīlauea’s caldera near the Koa‘e fault system, in coordination with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists.

But safety comes first.

Steve Lundblad pictured at computer in his office.
Steve Lundblad in his office. Courtesy photo Dept. of Geology/UH Hilo.

“There are various issues that could arise during an ongoing eruption,” says Lundblad. “For example, during the 2018 eruption, there was a weather phenomenon known as a lava tornado where lava can become airborne in a rapid, swirling motion, due to fierce winds. This can pelt anything in the area with hot lava.”

Lundblad has recently obtained clearance from USGS that the area where the team needs to work is minimal risk from the current volcanic activity in the caldera.

Following the 2018 eruption, Lundblad and his students measured a significant amount of ground uplift associated with the new material. “With this information we were able to help the scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory track the movement of magma.”

The collaborative data collection process was started in 1966 by Don Swanson, one of the world’s experts on volcanology and specifically Kīlauea volcano. The continuous joint effort between UH Hilo and staff from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) allows all interested scientists to access and potentially add to this impactful, one-of-a-kind research experience. The geology department’s continuous effort allows students to get involved in the real, physical world, while contributing to longstanding USGS datasets.

Students participate in field work that requires use of a multitude of survey tools, sufficient hiking skills, and an inherent love of volcanology in order to track the movement and extent of intrusions and provide additional information about what the deformation of the surrounding ground may imply about volcanic activity.


Three people pictured on lava field setting up geological measuring equipment.
Geology crew sets up and positions measuring equipment along Mauna Iki Trail in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Sept. 18, 2021. Photo by Sadie Nguyen.

To conduct the research, student research teams return to the cemented monuments or benchmark areas where measurements have previously been collected to assess changes in vertical ground motion and overall shift in land tilt using measuring tapes, optical levels, Invar Rods and NAK-2 leveling guns. The data is combined with the existing historical dataset to allow for the consistent calculation of terrain change.

“We provide important additional information to the observations that HVO is making by adding information collected from means outside of their permanent GPS (Global Positioning System) stations and satellite interferometry,” says Lundblad. “This gives students additional hands-on experience outside of the laboratory or class field trips while also providing some consistent baseline information for other relevant studies and the possibility to publish their findings.”

The effort is particularly special because scientists and students can now very easily go back over the data and see how things have changed over the last 50 years. The data collection can be tedious, but Lundblad says that building on existing information allows scientists to see that changes can add up a lot more quickly than originally thought.

“This work speaks to how much understanding is built one block at a time,” explains Lundblad. “Any individual measurement, by itself, is not going to be particularly enlightening. Since we were able to collect and assess many measurements after the last eruption, and many more for years before that, then combine all of those, it was very easy to see that there were places where the fault had moved dramatically.”


Man holds tall leveling rod upright stands on rocky outcrop.
UH Hilo alumnus Richy Chang (B.A. in Geology, Fall 2020) sets up a leveling rod used in collecting measurement data near Ohale Pali near the Mauna Iki Trail in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Sept. 18, 2021. Photo by Sadie Nguyen.

The team will be resuming surveillance within the next two weeks. The fault zones and equipment are located outside the caldera in a reasonably stable survey area even during times of eruption.

Lundblad says the group is always accepting additional student volunteers from any discipline with interest in observing the team’s process, including students with interest in working to contribute to the dataset, and students seeking to begin or continue their own related projects. Once strict covid protocols begin to ease, he hopes to return to national geology meetings and conferences where students are given the opportunity to share their findings.

“I think it’s a nice cohort building exercise for all of us, me as well, because we all get to know each other and work together,” Lundblad says. “Students drive themselves there, and we work outside at a distance from one another. Thinking back on college for me, this is different. It means a lot to me to have such an interesting and dedicated team with such fortitude.”


About the author of this story: Jordan Hemmerly is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo. She is a research assistant at the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab where she works in coral reef research.