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Kilauea is home to America’s first volcano observatory

Updated: 
February 3, 2017 - 10:08am

During Hawaii Island’s 8th annual Volcano Awareness Month (January 2017), we offered a series of Volcano Watch articles about four of the five U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) volcano observatories: Cascades (CVO), Alaska (AVO), California (CalVO), and Yellowstone (YVO). Today, we complete the series with a brief history of America’s first volcano observatory — the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO).

The information that follows is from “The Story of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory—A Remarkable First 100 Years of Tracking Eruptions and Earthquakes.” This USGS booklet, published to commemorate HVO’s centennial in 2012, is available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/135/.

The story of HVO goes back to 1909, when a geologist named Thomas A. Jaggar visited Kilauea for the first time. Noting the volcano’s frequent and relatively benign eruptions, fairly easy access, and frequent earthquakes, Jaggar concluded that Kilauea was the ideal site to study volcanic and seismic activity. He soon began raising funds to build a volcano observatory at the summit of Kilauea on the Island of Hawaii.

Jaggar, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was unable to move to Hawaii right away. But by late 1910, he had secured MIT funds to purchase specialized equipment and shipped it to Hawaii in anticipation of his work on Kilauea. He also arranged for an American volcanologist, Frank Perret, to travel to the island and begin observing and recording Kilauea’s volcanic activity. Perret was in Hawaii from July to October 1911.

Several prominent Hawaii businessmen had pledged money in 1909 to build an observatory at Kilauea, but Jaggar’s delay in getting it started had cooled their enthusiasm. Perret, however, demonstrated the value of scientific observation and documentation at Kilauea, and these businessmen, who had formed the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association (HVRA), again pledged funding to cover the daily operating expenses not covered by MIT funds. Continued HVRA support kept HVO going for many years.

Jaggar finally arrived at Kilauea and took over the continuous study of Hawaii Island’s active volcanoes in January 1912. Although Perret began monitoring Kilauea the year before, 1912 is generally noted as the year HVO was founded and the beginning of the first century of volcano watching in Hawaii.

Jaggar was the Director of HVO until he retired in 1940. Since then, 19 other scientists have served as HVO’s director or “scientist-in-charge.”

From 1912 to 1947, HVO was located near the present-day Volcano House Hotel in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1948, HVO was moved into a building that is now the National Park’s Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, where it remained for almost 40 years.

In 1986, HVO moved to its current location — a building constructed next to Jaggar Museum—perched on the rim of Kilauea’s summit caldera.

In the years since HVO was funded by the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association (1912-1919), other agencies have funded the observatory. These agencies include the U.S. Weather Bureau (1919-1924), the U.S. Geological Survey (1924-1935), and the National Park Service (1935-1947). In 1947, the U.S. Geological Survey became the permanent administrator of HVO.

Today, HVO is part of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program. Its mission is to monitor active and potentially active Hawaiian volcanoes and associated seismicity, assess volcanic and earthquake hazards, respond to volcanic crises, and conduct research on Hawaiian eruptions and earthquakes. HVO also provides volcanic and seismic hazards information to the emergency managers and affected populace who must make decisions about public safety. HVO differs from other USGS volcano observatories in that it is also the authoritative source of earthquake information in Hawaii.

HVO’s staff has grown from one geologist in 1912 (Jaggar) to a team of as many as 26 people in recent years, including specialists in geology, geophysics, seismology, volcanic gases, computer technology, electronics, library/photo archives, administration, and public information. Hundreds of volunteers and academic collaborators from around the world have also provided valuable assistance to HVO through the years.

HVO’s work today is as exciting and relevant as it was in the days of Thomas Jaggar, who felt a profound responsibility to use scientific inquiry to serve communities. We are proud to carry on his legacy—serving the people of Hawaii and beyond—into HVO’s second century.

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

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea continues to erupt at its summit and East Rift Zone. This past week, the summit lava lake level varied between about 43-75 feet below the vent rim. The 61g flow was still active, with lava entering the ocean near Kamokuna and surface breakouts near Puu Oo. The sea cliff adjacent to the Kamokuna ocean entry has become highly unstable and could collapse with no warning. The 61g flows do not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, small-magnitude (up to magnitude-3.0) earthquakes continued, primarily beneath the upper Southwest Rift Zone and the Northeast Rift zone at depths less than 3 miles. A small number of earthquakes also occurred on the west flank of the volcano at depths above 8 miles. Measurements at a fumarole site within the summit caldera showed an increase in temperature during the first half of January, but relatively steady fumarole temperatures were measured over the past week. There was no significant change in sulfur dioxide or carbon dioxide concentrations in the volcanic gas emissions.

Two earthquakes were reported felt in Hawaii this past week. At 10:45 p.m. on Jan. 31, a magnitude-3.7 earthquake occurred 38.7 miles southwest of Makena, Maui, at a depth of 22 miles. At 10:16 p.m. on Jan. 26, a magnitude-3.1 earthquake occurred 3.5 miles southwest of Mauna Loa’s summit at a depth of 2 miles.

Visit http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea daily eruption updates, Mauna Loa weekly updates, volcano photos, recent earthquakes info, and more; call for summary updates at (808) 967-8862 (Kilauea) or (808) 967-8866 (Mauna Loa); email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

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