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As the lava from the volcanic eruption on Hawaiʻi Island continues to flow, a team from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is providing critical information to the U.S. Geological Survey scientists responding to the natural disaster—real-time chemistry analysis of lava samples that help determine how the lava will behave and how fast it will move.

“The first time anybody is trying to do this, to really look at the chemistry at the same time the volcano is erupting,” said UH Hilo Volcanologist Cheryl Gansecki.

The samples are collected daily from the flows, bagged and dated, and brought back to the Hilo campus. That’s when the UH Hilo team goes to work.

Cheryl Gansecki examining lava

“We can do a really quick chemical analysis, we can look for tracers that tell us if anything is changing in the magma, in the system, and get that information back to HVO right away, usually within hours, or at least a day,” said Gansecki.

It’s a process that used to take weeks or months. The new system is also providing once in a lifetime opportunities for UH Hilo undergraduate students who test the lava samples.

“My job is to take those, turn them into powder, and run them through the machine and that gives us chemical data,” said UH Hilo geology student Ryan Sasaki.

UH Hilo has been analyzing lava flow samples from Kīlauea since 2013 but the composition barely changed. Then came May 2018 and a dramatic change.

“Itʻs magma that has been stored, it’s older, it’s colder and then as the fissures progressed, we started to see, younger, hotter, magma coming in,” ,” said Gansecki.

This type of lava is more fluid and can travel longer distances. The chemical change detected by the UH Hilo team preceded the change in the eruptive behavior by two to three days. That gave officials advanced warning.

“It’s awesome to know that I am contributing to cutting-edge, real science that’s happening now,” said Sasaki.

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