Friday | November 24, 2017
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Volcano Watch: HVO’s masked geologist heads north to Alaska

In recent photos of a USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist collecting lava samples, you might have noticed the face mask that’s worn to protect exposed skin from the intense radiant heat. The mask also conceals the wearer’s identity, raising the question “Who is that masked geologist?”

Though not intentional, the concealment is fine with Tim Orr, the geologist behind the mask, who prefers to avoid the limelight. But we think it’s high time to recognize his contributions to volcanology in Hawaii, especially since he’s leaving HVO this week.

Tim accepted a research geology position at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage, so he’s headed north to Alaska.

Lest you wonder why he’d willingly leave “paradise,” Tim hails from Montana so he’s familiar with snow and grizzly bears. He’s actually excited about getting back to a climate and outdoor activities similar to those of his youth. He also looks forward to learning about Alaska’s volcanoes, their different styles of eruption and new monitoring techniques.

Growing up near Yellowstone National Park, which is atop a volcanic hot spot, Tim was bitten by the “volcano bug” early on. While studying geology at the University of Montana, he spent four months volunteering at HVO in 1994.

After completing a master’s degree in geology at Northern Arizona University, and with a hankering for volcano monitoring work, Tim returned to HVO in 2002 as an operational geologist. By 2007, he was leading HVO’s Kilauea geology group, overseeing monitoring efforts and hazard assessments for the ongoing East Rift Zone (Pu‘u ‘O‘o) eruption. In 2008, his duties increased with the onset of Kilauea’s summit eruption within Halema‘uma‘u.

Despite his heavy HVO workload and family responsibilities, Tim managed to complete a Ph.D. in geology in 2015 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Hats off to his time management skills.

During Tim’s tenure at HVO, much has happened on Kilauea, and he’s been in the middle of it all.

A few examples: Tim was one of the HVO scientists who discovered the explosive deposits that marked the onset of the ongoing summit eruption in March 2008. Three years later, just as the Kamoamoa fissure eruption began, he straddled widening ground cracks on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone to capture spectacular video of lava spewing to the surface.

During the 2014-15 Pahoa lava flow crisis, his detailed mapping and keen field observations were essential to keeping Hawaii County Civil Defense and the public informed.

Tim is an excellent research scientist, who integrates detailed observations and geophysical data with his geologist’s intuition. For example, at the start of Kilauea’s summit eruption, he recognized that the occasional lava lake explosive events were triggered by large rockfalls from the crater walls. The cause of these explosions was initially debated, but high-resolution webcam imagery later provided conclusive support for his model.

Tim was instrumental in developing HVO’s modern webcam network and time-lapse camera systems to track volcanic activity. This opened a whole new way of monitoring and conducting research on Hawaiian volcanoes.

He also employed an innovative technique using structure from motion software to merge aerial imagery captured during overflights. This enables scientists to produce maps of active lava flows without having to walk many miles over rough and hazardous terrain.

Tim’s accomplishments at HVO and his contributions to a better understanding of Hawaiian volcanoes are extensive — too long to list here.

The same is true for his community service. “Thank you” hardly suffices for the countless public talks, Volcano Watch articles and interactions with students he provided throughout the past 15 years.

Asked about the best part of his job at HVO, Tim replied, “There’s never a dull moment.” And the worst part? His response was identical, reflecting the intense demands of Kilauea’s non-stop and ever-changing activity.

Tim is a valued USGS colleague and good friend to all of us at HVO. Generous with his time and knowledge, he’s always available to answer questions or mentor new staff. His calm demeanor and sense of humor are great assets in a work environment that often requires long hours and, at times, an abundance of stress. AVO’s gain is certainly HVO’s loss.

You will be greatly missed, Tim, but we wish you all the best in Alaska. A hui hou … until we meet again.

Volcano activity updates

This past week, Kilauea’s summit lava lake fluctuated in concert with summit inflation and deflation, with levels ranging about 13 to 38.5 m (43 to 126 ft) below the vent rim.

On the East Rift Zone, the 61g flow remained active, with lava entering the ocean near Kamokuna and scattered surface breakouts downslope of Pu‘u ‘O‘o. These flows do not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Rates of deformation and seismicity did not change significantly during the past week, but persist above long-term background levels.

During the past week, only a few small-magnitude earthquakes occurred beneath the volcano, primarily in the south caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone at depths less than 5 km (3 mi).

A small number of earthquakes also occurred on the west flank of the volcano at depths of 0 to 13 km (0 to 8 mi). GPS measurements continue to show deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit and upper Southwest Rift Zone.

No significant changes in volcanic gas emissions were measured.

Two earthquakes recently were reported felt on Hawaii Island.

At 8:42 p.m. June 12, a magnitude-2.3 earthquake occurred 4 km (2.5 mi) southeast of Leilani Estates at 2.7 km (1.7 mi) depth. At 8:22 a.m. June 11, a magnitude-2.8 earthquake occurred 13 km (8 mi) southwest of Captain Cook at 12 km (7.5 mi) depth.

Visit the HVO website ( for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea daily eruption updates, Mauna Loa weekly updates, volcano photos, recent earthquakes info, and more. Call for summary updates at 808-967-8862 (Kilauea) or 808-967-8866 (Mauna Loa). Email questions to

Volcano Watch ( is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists.


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