kilauea eruption
(NPS Photo/Janice Wei)

The latest eruption that began late December 20, 2020, at Halemaʻumaʻu crater at the summit of Kīlauea on Hawaiʻi Island has fired up scientists, including three University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo alumni. Armed with little sleep and a great education, the geology program graduates are making important contributions.

Miki Warren (2018), Liliana DeSmither (2014) and Katie Mulliken (2012), work for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (USGSHVO) and are currently helping with data collection and public communication.

(Photo credit: Miki Warren/USGS HVO)

DeSmither explained what she and Mulliken worked on during the first 18 hours of the eruption.

“Got a total of 2.5 hours of sleep last night,” DeSmither said. “Katie and I have been handling the [Volcano Activity Notice and Volcano Observatory Notice for Aviation] releases, helping to write, edit and review the information statement for the [magnitude 4.4] earthquake last night. We’ve also been getting updates, photos and videos from the field crews to write captions and post multimedia to the HVO webpage and responding to [emails sent to]. Attended several meetings and calls about the eruption response and public facing information.”

DeSmither also created an animated image for the public showing the first several hours of the eruption using F1cam thermal camera images.

She and Mulliken are also geologists who work in the field.

Gas geochemistry

An archive photo, from left, Katie Mulliken and Liliana DeSmither, Kalapana, 2012. (Photo credit: UH Hilo)

Warren’s specialty is gas geochemistry. She assists HVO scientists in collecting data on the types and amounts of volcanic gases that are emitted by the volcano, both during eruptions and times of inactivity. This work is critical for understanding how volcanoes work, and also for protecting the health of the general public.

Warren recalled her first night of the eruption, “I got a call from Tamar Elias, USGSHVO gas geochemist, at 10:30 p.m. [the first night of the eruption]. I was on standby until I got the official word about half an hour later to head to the USGSHVO warehouse in Kea‘au to pick up the gas team’s [Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer] to bring to the summit of Kīlauea, where Halemaʻumaʻu was erupting. I went out with the gas team that night and collected geochemical spectral data using the light emitted from the new lava fountain in Halemaʻumaʻu. The next morning I came home and slept for two hours, then grabbed new sulfur dioxide sensors to see how much SO2 the lava was producing, and headed back to meet the HVO gas geochemists Tamar Elias and Tricia Nadeau for another full day of volcanic gas measurements.”

Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes

All three alumnae gained experience working around volcanic features, and monitoring eruptions of Kīlauea, while attending UH Hilo. Darcy Bevens, educational specialist at the UH Hilo Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV), said, “They acquired knowledge and skills, both from taking geology classes, and from working as student assistants with the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes International Training program.”

Bevens said the three geologists were hired at HVO through a UH Hilo Cooperative Research Agreement, established by the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye in 1998 to promote research collaboration between HVO and UH Hilo, as well as an active natural hazards public outreach program to Hawaiʻi Island’s schools. The grant is managed by CSAV.

“Other cooperative projects include providing funding for equipment shared between HVO and UH Hilo,” said Bevens. “The UH Hilo geology department provides lab space and shares equipment with HVO, and students currently enrolled as geology majors enjoy working with HVO scientists on research projects.”

For more go to UH Hilo Stories.

—By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.