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Seismic Crisis Over, But Hazards Remain At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Released: 2/2/1996

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Gail Wendt 1-click interview
Phone: 703-648-4460



Air quality conditions at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remain potentially hazardous today (Feb. 2, 1996) in the wake of an upwelling of molten lava at Kilauea volcano yesterday. This event produced an intense earthquake swarm and an unprecedented emission of sulfur dioxide gas, forcing a short-term closure of sections of the park. Scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, who continually monitor the very active volcanoes in the park, alerted park officials yesterday of the hazards to visitors.

"In its initial stages, the situation had all the makings of a real emergency," said U.S. Geological Survey Director Gordon Eaton who had served previously as the chief scientist of the volcano observatory in Hawaii. "The scientists who continuously monitor the volcanoes saw disturbing and unusual symptoms in the form of intense swarms of shallow earthquakes -- as many as six quakes per minute -- under the summit caldera that signal the movement of lava just below the surface. Their prompt action to alert park officials, who then closed sections of the park, helped to ensure that the safety of visitors was immediately protected," he said.

David Clague, scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said that the rate at which sulfur dioxide is being produced by the volcano is unprecedented. Visibility is still extremely poor today (Friday) and there is a very real concern for public safety and for the health of people with respiratory conditions. The absence of the normal trade winds at this time of year, which would sweep the sulfur dioxide away from the Islands, is exacerbating the poor air quality. USGS scientists will continue to monitor these conditions and to work closely with park personnel and civil defense officials throughout the day to determine whether or not sections of the park will need to be closed again or if broader health advisories need to be issued.

"The safety of the public is one of the most important aspects of our hazards monitoring role," Director Eaton said from his office in Reston, Va. "We take very seriously the charge in our mission to monitor natural hazards such as volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides. Without our scientific ‘eyes and ears’ at sites around the country from Hawaii to the Aleutian Islands to heavily populated cities in California to unstable slopes in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Nation would be at far greater risk from such natural hazards," he said.

"The good news is that we were back at work after the recent government shutdown and were able to respond well in our role of monitoring hazards and alerting officials and protecting people’s lives," Eaton said. "The bad news is that with continuing budget constraints, we are concerned whether we will have sufficient resources to keep instruments functioning and to staff hazards and resource monitoring activities in all 50 states that enable us to respond effectively to emergencies such as the volcanic threat in Hawaii."

"We are especially concerned in a situation such as our observatory in Hawaii where equipment failed during the furlough and we have not been able to get instruments repaired and systems back up and running. It was a blessing that the incident at the Hawaii volcano happened at the time it did so that staff were already at work. Had it happened in the middle of the night, we would not have been able to respond quickly because the automated tremor alarm system that calls and alerts our staff has not been functioning since the furlough. We had been working to get it back on line, but it was not up and running. Fortunately, our well trained technicians and scientists on site were able to quickly respond and to alert the park and civil defense officials."

The following chronology is provided by David Clague, scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:

At 8:30 a.m. local time Feb. 1, USGS scientists alerted park officials that earthquake swarms were occurring under the Keanakakoi area of the summit caldera and that there was significant inflation of the volcano summit, indicating upward movement of lava. The HVO staff estimated that the lava upwelling was just a kilometer below the surface and advised the park to go on eruption alert. The National Park Service immediately closed and evacuated the coastal backcountry area, and closed the Chain of Craters Road and a portion of Crater Rim Drive.

By 11:30 a.m., the number of earthquakes began to decrease and it became evident that the lava was moving toward the Southwest or East Rift Zones. The latter zone is the site of the Pu’u O’o vent that has been active for the past 13 years.

USGS scientists continued their intensive level of monitoring and by 1:15 p.m. reported that the summit was deflating and that most of the lava had moved into the East Rift zone and Pu’u O’o area. As a result, the vent became very active with a large, vigorously circulating lava pond and extensive lava flows. A large number of surface flows appeared on the slopes below the vent.

The deflation of the summit, which signaled that the lava had found an exit route, eased the concern for an impending eruption in the summit area. USGS scientists advised park officials that it would be safe to reopen Crater Rim Drive and the summit trail system for visitor use. Chain of Craters Road remained closed until Friday morning.

The increased lava flows threaten the remaining endangered Akia shrub land on the coast, a fragile grassland ecosystem unique to that area. Also threatened are archeological features in the area, including the Wahaula Heiau, which is an ancient religious site.

There are many hazards around the active lava flows. The hazards are most severe where the lava enters the ocean and builds new land. The sand over which the lava flows is a poor foundation for the new land, however, and occasionally the land slides into the ocean, creating an extreme hazard for unwary visitors. In the past several weeks, one of these lava "benches" of new land, measuring about 200 by 800 feet, slid away. These slides occur with little warning and can produce small, local tsunami that wash back onto the land.

The volcanic hazards on the island also have direct correlation for large earthquake and landslide hazards as well. At least 17 enormous landslides have been spawned from the flanks of the principal Hawaiian Islands, where magma pushes against the flanks of the volcanoes causing large landslides to occur. Large earthquakes -- up to magnitude 8 -- have been triggered by the landslides.

"We have been working hard through our various natural hazards programs to reduce the huge indirect tax that every citizen must pay to repair and rebuild after a natural disaster," Eaton said. "This ‘disaster tax’ burden imposed by volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, landslides and other hazards now costs the Nation more than $50 billion dollars each year. We are determined to reduce that tax burden even as it threatens to climb higher as more and more people move into disaster-prone areas."

The USGS role in volcano hazards is to reduce loss of life caused by volcanic activity and to minimize the social and economic disruption that can occur when volcanoes erupt or even threaten to erupt. Volcanologists and other scientists study volcanic processes to better understand how volcanoes act and to better interpret warning signs of eruptions. USGS scientists also study selected volcanoes near population centers to assess the hazard posed by their future activity and monitor restless volcanoes -- such as those in Alaska -- to interpret the likelihood and probable style of an eruption. In Alaska, continuing volcanic activity has been an issue for the safety of long-distance aircraft that fly over these remote volcanoes and can be threatened by ash clouds.


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