The University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is playing a vital role in the response to the volcanic eruption on Hawaiʻi Island that has destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of more than a thousand residents. UH Hilo professors, scientists and students are providing valuable expertise and resources on multiple fronts, helping government officials assess the hazards to the public and its personnel, and decide where and how to respond.

“We are really happy that we are able to serve our community, and being able to contribute to the emergency response is also a great opportunity for our students,” said Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Ken Hon. “We’ve been working for a long time to provide meaningful contributions to provide greater understanding of volcanoes on our island and it’s great to be putting that knowledge to use.”

Helping in multiple areas

UH Hilo faculty and students have been assisting in multiple areas including:

  • A team led by UH Hilo Geology Department Chair and Professor Steven Lundblad is assisting in the response to the threat to the Puna Geothermal Venture Power Plant. The group is providing precise leveling of the ground around the power plant to detect whether, and how much, the surface is rising due to the flow of magma beneath the surface. The monitoring can, among other things, alert officials if the facility is about to be compromised.
  • A group of undergraduate and graduate students led by UH Hilo Geography Associate Professor Ryan Perroy are piloting unmanned aerial vehicles day and night capturing thermo and regularly imagery of the lava flows, critical information to the government agencies overseeing the eruption response.
  • UH Hilo Volcanologist Cheryl Gansecki, assisted by undergraduate students, is providing real-time chemistry analysis of lava samples. The information helps government scientists determine how the lava will behave and how fast it will move.

Providing Hawaiian Volcano Observatory a home

Sign on whiteboard: U S G S make yourself at home!
UH Hilo welcomes the USGS

The Hilo campus also opened its doors to the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory after the eruption closed the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is the source of information for county and state emergency officials when it comes to volcanic and earthquake hazards.

UH Hilo has been a phenomenal resource for us,” said Ed Brown, the Volcano Science Center USGS associate director. “They’ve provided space, they have provided infrastructure so we can put our communications systems in and extra staff.”

UH Hilo is also providing another vital resource to USGS—highly qualified employees. Three recent graduates of UH Hilo are among the approximately two dozen USGS personnel working around the clock to gather and analyze up-to-the-minute information on the eruption and lava flows.

“Seeing UH Hilo open up their doors to the USGS who can’t occupy their buildings right now is just really reflective, I think, of Hawaiʻi in general,” said Katherine Mulliken a geologist from the Alaska Volcano Observatory, who was born and raised on Hawaiʻi Island and is a 2012 UH Hilo graduate. “Everyone wants to help out and really come together.”

UH Hilo has a longstanding relationship with the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which for years has been providing students with internships and other opportunities to engage in the monitoring of an active volcano. Hon says that much of the geology program at UH Hilo has been developed to complement and support the observatory.