Volcano Watch: The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory highlights partnership between HVO and UH Hilo

Faculty and students in the UH Hilo geology and anthropology departments contribute to both volcano monitoring and research in Hawaiʻi.

Group of students and instructor gather around a blue computer screen set up in an office.
HVO geologist Baylee McDade shows students from the UH Hilo petrology class how to use the scanning electron microscope (SEM) to analyze minerals. Research in the SEM lab helps HVO and UH Hilo to better understand how and why volcanoes in Hawaiʻi erupt. (USGS photo by Lis Gallant)

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates. This article was written by HVO geologist Kendra J. Lynn and published on Feb. 15, 2024.

Kendra Lynn pictured with USGS sign in green, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, science for a changing world. Graphics of a volcano, a seismic reading, and the Hawaiian islands.
Kendra J. Lynn

Faculty and students in the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo geology and anthropology departments contribute to both volcano monitoring and research in Hawaiʻi. Recently, seismic unrest southwest of Kīlauea’s summit alerted HVO to a new intrusion of magma that occurred over a three-day period. The intrusion resulted in slight changes in ground elevations and new surface cracks along the Maunaiki trail in the Kaʻū Desert of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

UH Hilo geology and anthropology faculty and students conducted GPS [Global Positioning System] and leveling surveys over the past two weekends, tracking changes in the pre-existing cracks along the Koaʻe fault system south of Kīlauea’s summit. The major cracks in this area (not to be confused with the new cracks) have been monitored since 1966 using much of the same equipment that we still employ today: a tape measure, a ruler 9.8 feet (leveling rod three meters) tall, and a telescopic sighting scope.

The data collected by the group shows that the faults along the Koaʻe were squeezed together by several inches (centimeters) and the ground was raised by more than a foot (30+ centimeters) in some areas from the intrusion. The surveying adds specific information to help “ground truth” other monitoring datasets in the area, such as satellite, GPS, and tilt.

HVO staff are also committed to giving back to the UH Hilo community through education, outreach, and hands on student research and field opportunities. This week, HVO geologists participated in the UH Hilo geology department’s petrology laboratory course to expose students to analytical techniques. Petrology is the study of what rocks are made of.

During their regularly scheduled class period, HVO staff met with UH Hilo students in the scanning electron microscope (SEM) laboratory housed in the marine science building. For their lab assignment this week, student groups in the SEM lab learned techniques for doing petrological monitoring and research on Hawaiʻi’s active volcanoes.

Students were shown how the SEM operates and how it can help scientists better understand the compositions of rocks and minerals from Hawaiian eruptions. Using a sample from Mauna Loa’s 1855-1856 eruption, we demonstrated how energy dispersive spectrometry (EDS) analysis can identify different types of minerals (olivine, plagioclase, pyroxene) based on the major elements in their chemical structure.

Students were also introduced to some new instrumentation on the SEM called a wavelength dispersive spectrometer (WDS). This new equipment, funded by the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 (H.R. 2157), allows us to conduct standardized measurements on samples that are quantitative and comparable to other analytical technologies. This type of functionality was not available on the Island of Hawaiʻi prior to 2019.

In addition to education and outreach, HVO staff are committed to providing student opportunities for professional development and research. Through a cooperative agreement with the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaiʻi, an undergraduate student works with HVO scientists in the lab, specifically focused on processing samples during eruptions for near-real-time geochemical monitoring. In the fall of 2023, three additional students were involved in laboratory projects supporting ongoing research on Kīlauea’s recent eruptions.

HVO has also hosted Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES) students in the past, and, in the future, we hope to involve PIPES interns in laboratory-based research on Kīlauea’s recent eruptions. Through these various activities HVO strives to support UH Hilo students (and faculty) and we wish to express our gratitude for all of their hard work.

Share this story