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  • Associated Press A plume of ash rises from the Puu Oo vent on the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park last month. New technology is helping researchers glean a wealth of information from the volcano.

Friday, June 08, 2018 1:00 am

Tech helping scientists learn from volcano

Associated Press

HONOLULU – Hawaii's Kilauea volcano may be disrupting life in paradise with its bursts of ash and bright-orange lava, but it also has scientists wide-eyed, eager to advance what's known about volcanoes.

The good news is: Volcanoes reveal secrets when they're rumbling, which means Kilauea is producing a bonanza of information.

While scientists monitored Big Island lava flows in 1955 and 1960, equipment then was far less sophisticated. Given new technology, they can now gather and study an unprecedented volume of data.

“Geophysical monitoring techniques that have come online in the last 20 years have now been deployed at Kilauea,” said George Bergantz, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington. “We have this remarkable opportunity ... to see many more scales of behavior both preceding and during this current volcanic crisis.”

Starting May 3, Kilauea has fountained lava and flung ash and rocks from its summit, destroying hundreds of homes, closing key highways and prompting health warnings. Kilauea is one of five volcanoes that form the Big Island, and is a “shield” volcano – built up over time as lava flows layer on top of layer.

Technically speaking, it has been continuously erupting since 1983. But the recent combination of earthquakes shaking the ground, steam-driven explosions at the top, and lava creeping into a new area some 12 miles from the summit represents a departure from its behavior over the past 35 years, said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Ohio's Denison University.

What's happening now is a bit more like the Kilauea of nearly a century ago. In 1924, steam explosions at the summit lasted more than two weeks.

Scientists are looking into what caused the change and whether this shift in the volcano's magma plumbing system will become the new normal.

Radar allows researchers to measure the height of ash plumes shooting from the summit, even when they occur at night. Plume heights are an effect of how much heat energy is released and the explosion's intensity.

Scientists can also monitor where gas is emerging, as well as determine its composition and volume. They can even measure the subtle rise and fall of the ground over a broad area and time – down to seconds – which suggests when and where magma is pooling underground.

Better technology has also meant U.S. Geological Survey scientists have been able to accurately forecast Kilauea's behavior as it sputters over Puna, the island's most affected district.

“It's incredible – they're looking at things happening below the surface, using the monitoring equipment that they have, the knowledge they have of past eruptions, and have been able to get people to not be in a deadly area,” said Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University in West Virginia.

This is unfortunately not always possible, as nature can be unpredictable. On Sunday, Guatemala's Volcano of Fire sent a mixture of hot gas, rock and other material racing down its slopes and inundating the valley, killing nearly 100 people.

Krippner compared the Guatemala eruption to opening a can of soda after shaking it vigorously. Volcanic gas underneath created bubbles that expanded, increasing pressure that blew magma apart when it reached the surface, spewing cooled lava rocks ranging from the size of sand grains to boulders.

For now, volcanologists feel a “tremendous amount of responsibility” to learn as much as possible from the volcano, said Michael Poland, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist.

Its latest activity has destroyed about 400 homes – including about 280 over the last several days – and displaced thousands of residents. Lava from Kilauea has also downed power lines and knifed across highways.

“It's coming at a great cost in terms of impact on the lives and livelihoods of so many people – we owe it to the people of Puna to make sure that we learn the lessons the volcano is teaching us,” Poland said.