For UH Hilo, Maunaloa eruption is a living lab and real world classroom

While UH Hilo geology students take a field trip to view the flow in person, university researchers work with Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff to analyze samples of fresh lava.

At night, red hot molten lava flows downhill with ash and steam reflecting in the red light.
The Maunaloa eruption provides spectacular viewing from Saddle Road on Hawai‘i Island. UH Hilo geology students have been enjoying field trips to see the lava from a safe distance. (Photos by Meghann Decker/UH, click to enlarge)

By Susan Enright

The eruption of Maunaloa, which began on Sunday, has created a spectacular living laboratory and real world classroom for students, faculty, and staff at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Steve Lundblad
Steve Lundblad

Professor of Geology Steve Lundblad took his introductory geology class (GEOL 111, Understanding the Earth) on an excursion Tuesday to view the flow from Saddle Road, basing their observations at Gilbert Kahele Park. The class is studying the features and materials that make up Earth, with emphasis on structures, various erosional and depositional processes, and the role of plate tectonics.

The curriculum of the class is designed to prepare students for further studies in geology. What better place to prepare students for the real world of geology than in the field observing, with their own eyes, the world’s largest active volcano erupting for the first time since 1984?

“We talked about Maunaloa and Maunakea, and the Maunakea cinder cones surrounded by newer Maunaloa lava flows,” he says of the field trip in an email. Mostly, he says, he and the students were busy looking at the eruption through binoculars.

Darcy Bevens
Darcy Bevens

Meanwhile, staff from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) are collecting and bringing to the UH Hilo Geoarchaeology Laboratory samples of fresh lava for analysis on the Energy Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometer, commonly called the EDXRF machine, that analyzes groups of elements simultaneously.

“Our student worker Baylee McDade will help prepare the samples, grinding them into powder, for analysis on the EDXRF machine, a little later today after the rocks finish in the drying oven,” explains Darcy Bevens, an educational specialist at the UH Hilo Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV), on Tuesday.

Bevens further explains that the samples, which Prof. Lundblad will run through the EDXRF machine, “will give HVO details about the composition of the rock.”

Cheryl Gansecki pictured
Cheryl Gansecki
Peter Mills pictured
Peter Mills

Lundblad and colleague Peter Mills, a UH Hilo professor of anthropology, have operated the X-Ray Fluoresence Spectrometer for the past 20 years, working on archaeological materials.

In past years, they also have worked with Cheryl Gansecki, a UH Hilo geology lecturer and researcher specializing in volcanology, on newly erupted samples from Kīlauea—and now this week on Maunaloa—to track changes in the eruption. They do this by testing samples from the active flows, which are run through the EDXRF machine and analyzed for changes from one sample to the next.

UH Hilo has been analyzing lava flow samples from Kīlauea since 2013 but the composition barely changed. Then came May 2018 and a dramatic change. First there was magma that had been stored, older, colder, and then as the fissures progressed, the scientists started to see, younger, hotter, magma coming in. This type of lava is more fluid and can travel longer distances.

“We successfully tracked changes during the 2018 eruption from magma that was stored in the lower East Rift zone to new magma that traveled from the summit reservoir,” Lundblad says.

The chemical change detected by the UH Hilo team preceded the change in the eruptive behavior by two to three days. That gave officials advanced warning in their task of protecting the public.

Now the UH Hilo team is at work on the Maunaloa flows.

“Because Maunaloa is a new eruption, we are hoping to help the USGS-HVO folks track changes from the early phases of the eruption to later stages,” says Lundblad.

Three people in a lab looking at a computer screen.
In the UH Hilo geology lab, Professor Steve Lundblad, at right, views the solid matter spewed from the Maunaloa eruption with Johanne Schmith, center, a U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory post-doc, and Julie Chang, at left. The matter includes beautiful Pele’s Hair and Limu o Pele. Microscope images are projected onto the computer screen and archived. (Darcy Bevens/CSAV)

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.

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