A brief history of MIT’s influence on the Hawaii Volcano Observatory’s century-plus of research.
BY SARAH SCHWARTZ | EAPS NEWS
In the spring of 1912, geologist Thomas A. Jaggar arrived at Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Jaggar had just left his role as the head of MIT’s Geology Department—today, part of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences—to take the helm of his dream project.
In 1909, MIT received funding for geophysical research to protect human lives and property. Jaggar, who had been deeply affected by the devastation he witnessed while studying the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique, urged MIT to use the money to build a permanent volcanic observatory. He favored construction in geologically active Hawaii, which offered a candidate volcano with constant, moderate activity, frequent earthquakes, and consistent lava flow. Three years later, on the rim of Kilauea’s crater, the newly-constructed Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO) awaited Jaggar’s direction.
Early work at the HVO was diverse. Scientists monitored earthquakes and eruptions, recorded lava types and temperatures, sampled rocks and gases, and studied Kilauea’s shape and crater floor. In the observatory’s infancy, limited funding forced Jaggar to be creative, sometimes working without a salary, and once even raising pigs to help finance HVO research. His perseverance paid off: in 1919, the U.S. government funded the HVO, with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assuming permanent direction over the observatory in 1947. And, in 2012, the HVO celebrated 100 years of continuous volcanic observation in Hawaii.
Today, the HVO continues to pursue cutting-edge research, powered by a team of specialists in volcanology, seismology, geology, geophysical instrumentation, and more. “We each try to ply the tools of our chosen specialization to try to see what they tell us about the volcano behaviors,” says Paul Okubo PhD ’86 (XII). “[We] try to put them together so we might be able to develop a coherent picture of what the volcano is doing, and what the volcano might do, as well.”
Active Kilauea has provided plentiful data for the researchers perched on its rim. During Jaggar’s tenure, ending with his retirement in 1940, Kilauea erupted more than a dozen times. The volcano remained active in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes erupting three times in a single year. Then, in 1983, the volcano began erupting along its East Rift Zone—and has erupted nearly nonstop for over 30 years. “Prior to that, in the instrumental era, there were no long-lived eruptions,” says Okubo. “So it’s not only the activity, but the long history of activity, that really makes HVO special.”
This activity has caused a couple of relocations over the years. Jaggar chose the observatory’s original site for its proximity to the lava lake Halema’uma’u, however, “When the activity changed throughout the twentieth century, the facility was moved to the other side of the crater,” Okubo says. “It seemed as if we were closer to the center of the activity. And I guess that’s been borne out by events.”
By that, Okubo is referring to the events of 2018 when Kilauea’s eruption rapidly intensified with strong earthquakes, explosions, and massive lava flows. Facing physical danger, Okubo and his colleagues evacuated. But even now, after the flows finally ceased in September and a portion of the national park surrounding the volcano reopened, the extensive infrastructure damage means HVO staff have been unable to return, and so are continuing to work in temporary offices at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Fortunately, exhaustive technical preparations allowed the team to leave Kilauea’s crater without losing the ability to continuously monitor the volcano, and unmanned aerial devices flew daily missions over lava flows and scoured the summit for new observations.
Despite the changes that come over a century on one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, Okubo says the observatory’s core mission remains similar to what Thomas Jaggar envisioned from the start: “I’d like to think that we try to follow in the original Jaggar vision of just really studying and understanding how volcanoes work, and trying to point that towards mitigating volcanic hazards.”
Read a Q&A with alumnus Paul Okubo about what it’s like to work on an active volcano:
Story Image: Kilauea research then and now: Thomas Jaggar scoops up a sample of lava at the Halema’uma’u crater within the summit caldera in 1917, while 101 years later, at the height of the eruption of 2018, a USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory field crew documents the behavior of lava as it exits the Fissure 8 cone. Photo credits: USGS
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