Issue 15.2: 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.


There was no ribbon-cutting
ceremony to mark the birth of HVO. It started as a hut for observers on the edge of Halema‘uma‘u in 1911. The first permanent building was constructed near the current location of Volcano House in 1912, when continuous observations began. But the observatory’s origins go back to 1902, when a 31-year-old geologist named Thomas A. Jaggar Jr. landed on the shores of a wasteland of jumbled stone and burnt plaster that only thirteen days before had been St. Pierre, the capital of the Caribbean island of Martinique. A cloud of super-hot gases and ash from a volcano named, coincidentally, Mount Pelée had blasted through the city, leaving only three survivors of a population of 28,000.


Amid that devastation, where nearly every building had been razed and every street buried, Jaggar found his calling. “I realized that the killing of thousands of persons by subterranean machinery totally unknown to geologists … was worthy of a life work,” he later wrote in his autobiography. Jaggar became chairman of geology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A tough, active man and gifted amateur actor, he could play the role of professor as fluidly as he could blend in with highsociety benefactors to talk them out of their money. But on campus he was about as comfortable as Indiana Jones. He preferred to travel on expeditions to study volcanoes in Europe, Japan, the Caribbean and Alaska.


It was on one such trip to Italy that Jaggar met his future collaborator, Frank Alvord Perret, “The Hero of Vesuvius,” whose pioneering work had made him perhaps the most famous volcanologist of his time. Jaggar was on his way to Japan in 1909 to visit Fusakichi Omori, who’d helped found the world’s most advanced earthquake-monitoring network, when he met Kilauea for the first time. He journeyed by boat, train and buckboard wagon to view the red steam rising off the lava lake that then filled Halema‘uma‘u. Back in Honolulu, Jaggar proposed setting up a geophysical observatory on Kilauea to the Chamber of Commerce. He found support from Lorrin A. Thurston, who published the Commercial Pacific Advertiser, owned the railroad that ran partway to Kilauea’s summit and was a major stockholder in Volcano House. Jaggar left Hawai‘i with promises of backing from Thurston and his friends.


Back in Boston, interest in geophysical research had been heightened by a decade of geologic upheaval. The eruption on Martinique had been followed by the San Francisco earthquake and an explosive eruption of Vesuvius in 1906; in 1908 an earthquake centered near Messina, Italy, had claimed more than one hundred thousand lives. MIT had a large grant for geophysical research from the Whitney Foundation, but MIT’s president wanted that money spent on a geophysical observatory in Massachusetts. After appealing to heiress Caroline Whitney, Jaggar managed to get Whitney funds to purchase Omori-designed seismometers, special high-temperature thermometers and a cable system to lower those thermometers into the lava lake at Halema‘uma‘u. He finally persuaded university officials to grant him a leave of absence for research on Kilauea.


In January of 1911, when Perret was in Boston to do a series of lectures, he and Jaggar agreed to visit Kilauea together to try out Jaggar’s new instruments. But when Jaggar’s wife became pregnant, Perret went on alone. He built the hut on the edge of Halema‘uma‘u and strung a cable across the crater to lower Jaggar’s thermometers. With Thurston and his family manning the cable machinery, Perret took Madame Pele’s temperature for the first time: 1,010 degrees centigrade. Jaggar finally arrived at Volcano House on January 17, 1912. By then Perret was gone, and his hut had been scorched by the rising lava lake. Jaggar retreated to the cliff overlooking the caldera to build his permanent observatory.


It didn’t take long for Jaggar’s gamble to pay off: In 1914, according to science historian and former HVO geologist John Dvorak, Jaggar’s seismometers recorded a swarm of micro-earthquakes — something big was about to happen on Mauna Loa. Six hours later the volcano erupted: For the first time in history, a volcanic eruption had been scientifically predicted before it occurred. It wouldn’t be the only first for Jaggar: In 1933 his instruments detected an earthquake in Japan, and he alerted public officials that a tsunami could be coming. In Hilo Harbor, “piers were cleared of cargo and ships were sent to sea,” writes Dvorak. “Within ten minutes of the expected time, a large wave arrived—the first accurately predicted tsunami.”


Today HVO continuously documents
the tiniest of geologic changes—a fraction of a degree in the tilt of a slope; a swarm of temblors detectable only with a seismometer— to predict catastrophic events such as major eruptions.


The observatory has four different monitoring networks: the seismic network, which measures earthquakes; the geodetic network, whose tiltmeters and GPS receivers measure changes as subterranean lava inflates or deflates a volcano’s surface; a network of instruments that measure gas emissions; and a collection of remote cameras, some of which can be accessed by visiting the observatory’s web site at


Geochemist and IT specialist Lopaka Lee coordinates those networks. Lee was born in Hawai‘i—as was about half the observatory’s staff—and the data he keeps flowing hold special importance to him and anyone else living in the shadow of the volcano: His mother’s family lost their home in a 1956 eruption that wiped out the village of Kapoho in Puna. “The data that come in and the information that we supply to the public and the [civil defense] decision makers—the reliability of that data has to be 100 percent,” he says. “It can never fail. It can never stop.”


Observatory scientists also study the past in order to better predict the future. Kilauea’s near-continuous lava flows have claimed few lives in recent years, but that hasn’t always been so. Kauahikaua points to one USGS study by geologist Michael Garcia, who found that in the past Kilauea had long periods in which it produced explosive eruptions. One such eruption in 1790 wiped out a large portion of the army of Ka‘u chief Keoua, Kamehameha the Great’s primary rival. Keoua’s warriors weren’t burned to death like the people of St. Pierre. They reportedly looked as if they’d fallen asleep—probably overcome by toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, which the observatory now monitors on a daily basis. Kilauea undoubtedly will have another explosive phase in the future— something Big Island residents need to keep in mind.


Kilauea gets the majority of the headlines these days, and people tend to forget the catnapping giant next door. The scientists don’t. Mauna Loa is as heavily instrumented as its little sister, and it’s long overdue to erupt. It went off fifteen times during the twentieth century—an average of once every 6.6 years. Its most recent eruption, in 1984, sent a flow to within about four miles of Hilo. Frank Trusdell, the observatory’s Mauna Loa specialist, notes that during that last eruption, Mauna Loa spewed forth as much lava in twenty minutes as Kilauea typically exudes in a whole day. And its flows are more dangerous because they can move faster: “Most of the flows in South Kona moved from their source down the slopes to the sea in less than one day,” says Trusdell. Fortunately, he says, Mauna Loa looks quiet for now: “We have no earthquakes to indicate anything imminent,” though his tiltmeters show that the mountain’s flanks are inflating very slightly.


The observatory also watches for three other dangers: earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis. A Hawaiian volcano is riddled with faults and fissures and is so heavy that it actually depresses and cracks the ocean floor beneath it—a prime spawning ground for earthquakes. And every so often a hunk of the island breaks off and slides into the sea. Usually it’s a lava shelf that builds up where a flow meets the ocean; it’s the job of HVO scientists, national park staff and civil defense to make sure no sightseers are out on such a shelf when it goes (which happened in 1993 when a visiting photographer was swept out to sea and about a dozen others were injured after one such “bench collapse”). From time to time much bigger chunks fall off. One prehistoric landslide near modern-day Kealakekua Bay generated a tsunami that left beach cobbles 365 meters above sea level on Lana‘i. If a similar slide were to happen on Kilauea, it could generate a tsunami even bigger than the one that devastated communities from Indonesia to Africa in 2004.


Today volcanoes from Iceland to Yellowstone are monitored with webs of instruments modeled on the ones Jaggar pioneered. Monitoring probably helped limit the deaths to only eighty-two when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. Instruments on Mount Rainier could provide evacuation time for millions in the Seattle area should that volcano awaken. GPS sensors and tiltmeters helped Icelandic volcanologists predict the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption, whose ash cloud closed airports all over Europe.


Today the seismographs in the Jaggar Museum are anachronisms; where the originals had converted vibrations from a needle into lines on a drum of smoked paper, the current technology translates digital signals radioed from faraway instruments. Volcanologists might still hook gobs of molten lava with rock hammers and quench their samples in old coffee cans, but sophisticated chemical analysis can now tell them the lava’s temperature before quenching, whether it came from deep or shallow magma reservoirs and whether the flow is likely to be a short-term phenomenon or part of a long-term event.


Powering all that data is still the simple idea that Jaggar brought back from Martinique: The more we know about what the Earth is doing, the safer we’ll be.