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Vol. 15, no. 2
April/May 2012


The Watchmen 

Story by Alan D. McNarie

Photos by Olivier Koning  


It’s early afternoon
on the rim of Kilauea caldera, and three tour buses are parked in the lot outside the Jaggar Museum. The Japanese, German and American tourists who crowd the museum ooh at a bank of seismographs tracing the zigzagging lines of microearthquakes on rolls of paper and don’t notice the distinguished scientist in their midst. Jim Kauahikaua, dressed in a faded T-shirt and shorts and sporting a shaggy mane of black hair, threads his way quietly through the crowd to the observation terrace, then steps over a low wall of lava blocks and slips in the back entrance of a building next door notable only for its airport-like observation tower.


This is the hub of Hawai‘i’s oldest observatory, and Kauahikaua is its longtime director. “I’ve been here forever,” he muses. “I’ve been on staff since ’88. I worked here off and on since the ’70s.” This building is probably the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s least important component; the vitals are the scores of instruments monitoring Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Haleakala and the Lo‘ihi seamount. They’ve been recording continuously since January 17, 1912, making the HVO the second-oldest geophysical observatory on the planet; throughout 2012 it will celebrate one hundred years at the forefront of volcanology.


Kauahikaua strolls past the “control center”: a bank of computer monitors in the building’s central hall—now turned off much of the time because most of the data flow directly to staffers’ PCs—and settles into his large, cluttered office. Its picture windows look out on the steam cloud billowing from Halema‘uma‘u crater, the smoldering core of Kilauea.


Volcanologists have a reputation as scientific daredevils, but Kauahikaua’s low-key demeanor belies the occupational hazards. Yes, his team does regularly visit areas where tourists aren’t allowed; yes, they do fish samples of 2,000-plus-degree Fahrenheit molten rock out of the glowing “skylights” in lava tubes. But Kauahikaua is proud to say that HVO’s staff has never suffered a fatality. “We’re charged with assessing hazards and giving timely warnings. That’s our congressional mandate. You can’t do that by being a yahoo,” he says. What the observatory team really should be known for is not the risks its staffers take but the deaths it prevents. But that statistic, Kauahikaua says, is more difficult to calculate.


“The 1924 explosive [Kilauea] eruption killed one person, but he went beyond the signs that said not to go beyond the signs,” Kauahikaua notes. There’s no way to know how many people obeyed the signs and lived because they did. But what is certain is that for a century, HVO scientists have been measuring every twitch of Hawai‘i’s volcanoes. They’ve used that data to successfully predict eruptions and tsunamis and have advised civil defense about possible dangers and when to order evacuations. The lessons they’ve learned have been put to use in other geologic danger zones around the world. That knowledge may have helped save thousands of lives in the past and will probably help save thousands more in years to come.