In one fell swoop, one of the largest and most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history upended the political and economic lives of more than a million people on two sides of the Hawaiian archipelago. Kilauea eruption also altered some of the dynamic of global climate-change policy.
Less than a month after a periodic series of explosions in the Big Island’s erupting volcano first sent ash billowing out of its summit crater, scientists and government officials realized this volcanic event was far more complex than previous eruptions, including the Kilauea eruptions that have been raging on Hawaii’s Big Island for the past half-century. The sheer volume of sulfur dioxide, the heavy particles in the particles that form ash clouds, given off at heights of 6,000 feet, as in the case of the 26 May eruption, brought complex chemical reactions to a rapid halt and created a toxic cloud several miles above sea level.
The volcanic behavior of Kilauea is unique. In the Sept. 14, 1982 eruption that became known as the Keahole eruption, seismic motion triggered steam-driven eruptions of Kilauea’s summit crater as well as landslides in the area south of the crater that resulted in widespread destruction. But during the Oct. 2, 1991, eruption, the eruption and cold fluids originating in the summit crater were re-occurring while trees were blown down into the crater.
But although these events all individually fit the common pattern of a sudden start to an eruption, they contained an element of surprise. The temperature of the summit crater is still monitored, but monitors at various points in the crater were off. The Earth’s atmosphere, like air traffic in an airport, is always hovering above the ground, but on May 26, rising to 8,000 feet, the only data source on the volcano was the sulfur dioxide emissions from the volcano’s plume. This was new.
So, in a few hours, researchers at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) established a new baseline of data. And the results were stunning.
The performance of HVO’s cryospheric and geophysics cameras, which are designed to record minute changes in temperature in the deep atmosphere, exploded. The temperature records showed a rapid change from temperature that measured 240 degrees Fahrenheit in the day, at midday, and 110 degrees F in the mid-afternoon to a reading of 134 degrees in the early evening at the summit crater, which is still recovering from damage by Thursday.
A similar trend was apparent in the ambient temperature measurements collected from ground sensors and a satellite array around the summit crater. One of the regions that has begun to heal this week is the scientific community, too.
“We need to work together to ensure that the Volcano Ecosystem doesn’t succumb to another once-in-a-lifetime extreme impact,” said USGS Yellowstone expert Jeff MacNabb. “That meant tripling resources for seismic monitoring. It means adding dozens of new instrumentation arrays to help seismologists track changes to the volcanology beyond what surface readings will give them.”
The scientific community also began to have a real working relationship with the Hawaiian government.