Friday | October 20, 2017
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Scientists reflect on eruption

Current and former staffers at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory were asked to reflect on the Pu‘u O‘o eruption on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, and to discuss their recollections and thoughts about the last 30 years.

Ed Wolfe

HVO staff geologist, 1982-1984

“Hard to believe it was thirty years ago…. On January 2, 1983, Bob Koyanagi and his HVO seismology group were tracking a vigorous earthquake swarm migrating northeastward in Kilauea’s rift zone. Several of us began hiking about mid-day from the vicinity of Mauna Ulu, northeastward toward the middle part of the East Rift Zone. Guided by the migrating earthquake swarm, and thanks to a helicopter lift, we were on the ground between Nāpau Crater and Pu‘u Kamoamoa, on the north side of what would become the initial eruptive fissure, when lava broke the surface near Nāpau in the very wee hours of January 3. I must have been carrying a 100-pound pack and was greatly relieved to be picked up en route by the helicopter; otherwise, I almost certainly would not have been on site when the eruption began.

It was an exciting and busy night and the beginning of a long adventure—much longer than any of us at that time anticipated. My recollection is that when Episode 1 ended, we assumed the eruption was over. By the time we were in Episode 2, I think we realized this was not a normal east rift zone eruption. A word about the name of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō: I was simply trying to describe on the radio from the eruption site where one of the vents was located. I described the location as near the “o” in “lava flow of 1965” on the topographic map. Someone at HVO decided to informally call the growing spatter cone Puu O, and the Kalapana Hawaiian elders took it from there to Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō.

Norm Banks

HVO staff geologist, 1978-1985

After the alarm was called out, and we gathered at HVO, several of us geared up (as we had on many failed and a few eruptive events) and drove down to the end of the Chain of Craters Road to hike into Kīlauea’s middle East Rift in the dark and rain. We spent the night, wet, chasing the center of seismic activity (our packs loaded with cameras, time-lapse cameras, thermocouple kits, other observation instruments and survival supplies) as seismic reports came in from HVO. We finally ended up and waited at the actual site of the first outbreak. We had cameras all set up and pointed in the right direction from some high points north of the eruption site. My memory is that our first crew was augmented and replaced, by helicopter (Ed Wolfe’s party), at about dawn and before the lava broke surface, although I returned to add to or replace the ground geologists after some heat, drying, and food back at HVO.

None of us at HVO were predicting on the night of 2-3 January 1983 that we were seeing the start of an East Rift “siege” eruption. If anything, with the 3+ years of short eruptions (‘79, 3-80, 4-82, and 9-82) and multiple (10-15) failed eruptions (seismic swarms and deformation events), we were expecting a day to week of surface activity, or none at all. Even when activity resumed 10 February, but then stopped again, the betting would still have favored a limited event. The resumptions in March and April had some possibly thinking a Mauna Ulu event, but not a siege. I think that “siege” did not enter the lexicon until Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō had become fully established and had experienced repeated episodes that pointed to an eruption that could certainly match/exceed Mauna Ulu’s record. When I left HVO in mid-1985, I’m not sure that there had yet been consensus or a “eureka” moment, although certainly by then Pele had edged out Maunu Ulu’s 4+-year record, and there were discussions by then that we could be documenting something that might match pre-historic eruptions.

Lopaka Lee

HVO staff scientist, 2007-present

As a 9-year old, I recall sitting on my Aunt’s roof in Puna looking at the fountain thinking, “Tutu Pele coming ….”

About the naming of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, it’s ironic that a common meaning of “o‘o”, particularly the way we’ve come to pronounce it, is “mature, old, aged.” Of course, this consistent with the Hawaiian belief that things can be influenced by naming alone—for better or worse. Personally, every time I hear the name Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, I think, “Indeed!”


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