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HVO welcomes its new scientist-in-charge

Updated: 
March 8, 2015 - 12:05am

Today is International Women’s Day. This year, it’s also the day that Christina (Tina) Neal succeeds Jim Kauahikaua as scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. It’s a fitting coincidence that Neal, only the second woman to lead HVO in its 103-year-long history, takes the helm on the day that achievements of women are celebrated around the world.

Neal comes to Hawaii from Alaska, where she spent almost 25 years working as a USGS geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. After so many years in the land of the midnight sun, swapping snowshoes for slippahs might seem drastic, but she’s no stranger to the aloha state — or HVO.

From 1983 to 1989, Neal lived in Hawaii and was on staff at HVO. Her work here included monitoring Kilauea during the early years of its ongoing East Rift Zone eruption, as well as Mauna Loa during its 1984 eruption. She fondly recalls a day in March 1984, when she spent the morning atop the erupting Mauna Loa and the afternoon on the active Puu Oo vent on Kilauea. For a volcanologist, that’s an unforgettable day.

As part of the Big Island Mapping Project, Neal mapped the summit of Kilauea, resulting in the “Geologic Map of the Summit Region of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii” (pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/i2759). She also mapped Kilauea’s Southwest Rift Zone for the “Geologic Map of the Island of Hawaii” (pubs.usgs.gov/ds/2005/144/).

In 1990, Neal moved to Alaska to work at the newly-created AVO in Anchorage. There, she monitored and studied a number of Alaskan volcanoes and their eruptions, including Redoubt (1989–90 and 2009), Mount Spurr (1992), Augustine (2005–06), and Okmok (2008). Working on remote Alaskan stratovolcanoes is not for the faint-hearted — steep-sided, glacier-covered volcanic mountains are hazardous even when not erupting — a tip-off to the mettle of which Neal is made.

During “quiet” times, Neal investigated eruptive histories and hazards of several volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. She was particularly interested in the physical processes of explosive eruptions — ash cloud formation, ash fall deposits and pyroclastic flow and surge mechanisms — and the interaction of volcanic activity with ice and water.

In 1998, Neal accepted a two-year assignment in Washington, D.C., as the first USGS geoscience adviser to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, a USAID unit responsible for coordinating U.S. government responses to disasters overseas. In D.C., she oversaw and initiated programs in geohazards mitigation, advised OFDA on responses to geologic disasters, and served as liaison between federal agencies, academics and nongovernmental organizations that work on natural hazards mitigation. She also traveled to Thailand, Nepal, Ecuador, Colombia and Kazakhstan to review or assist with the implementation of hazard mitigation programs.

When Neal returned to AVO in 2000, she resumed her work as a geologist — mapping and studying active Alaskan volcanoes. With colleagues, she strengthened the Alaska-based interagency response system for volcanic eruptions and coordinated AVO’s eruption monitoring and crisis response efforts with Russian counterparts. She is also internationally recognized for her efforts to reduce the risk of volcanic ash to aviation in the North Pacific and globally. As part of an NSF-funded multidisciplinary team, Neal recently helped install the first volcano monitoring equipment on the long-active Cleveland volcano in the central Aleutians.

In addition to outstanding geologic work, Neal honed her managerial skills during two details as chief of staff and deputy regional director for the USGS Western Regional Office in 2009–10 and as acting scientist-in-charge at AVO in 2010.

Over the years, Neal has maintained ties to HVO. In 2012, she helped with HVO’s 100th anniversary open house, and in October, she spent two weeks at HVO assisting with monitoring efforts and community meetings as Kilauea’s lava flow moved toward Pahoa.

Tom Murray, director of the USGS Volcano Science Center, which oversees all five USGS volcano observatories, notes that he was thrilled when she accepted the post as HVO’s leader. “Tina brings to the HVO scientist-in-charge position the required broad scientific background, strong communication skills, and eruption response experience, including much work with various communities at risk. I know that both HVO and the communities that it serves will be in good hands going forward,” he said.

Kilauea activity update

Kilauea’s East Rift Zone lava flow fed breakouts across the leading 1.6 miles of the flow, but had not advanced farther downslope. Breakouts were also active about 4 miles upslope from the flow front, over a broad area about 2 miles northeast of Puu Oo, and on the north flank of Puu Oo. The Puu Oo crater also gradually subsided over the past week.

The summit lava lake level tracked summit deformation, dropping about 80 feet associated with sharp deflation that began on March 1. The dropping lava level triggered a large collapse within the Overlook crater on Wednesday that slightly enlarged the lava lake. The lake level was about 240 feet below the rim of the Overlook crater as of Thursday.

There were no earthquakes reported felt on Hawaii Island during the past week.

Visit the HVO website at hvo.wr.usgs.gov for current Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

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