Study Seeks Better Understanding of Hawaii's Most Active Volcano

Sep 10, 2015

Credit USGS

Lava flowing from Kīlauea is the subject of a new study. Researchers from Hawai‘i and the mainland are partnering on a three-year project to better understand active volcanoes. And as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, it could lead to improved predictions and disaster preparedness.

Dealing with an active lava flow can be unpredictable. Pāhoa residents learned this firsthand, after spending months in limbo as lava neared the Big Island town. A new study may pinpoint ways to better assess volcanoes.

“What we’re targeting is the problem of making good choices,” said Hawai‘i State Volcanologist Bruce Houghton, who’s leading the project on Kīlauea.  He says the research will bring together statisticians, social scientists and volcanologists like himself. He hopes to give residents living in the path of an eruption a better idea of their risk. “The goal is better decision making and ultimately less impact on human life,” said Houghton. “All of us have to make decisions in a situation where the information that we’ve got is very unclear. There’s high level of uncertainty, high levels of poor resources to actually make those critical choices.”

Houghton says volcanic eruptions are unlike other natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, where people are already in response mode, reacting to the damage from the impacts. Warnings for volcanoes are different. “The warning times are so long. They can be years, decades, almost always months,” said Houghton. “There’s a long period of time beforehand with lots of uncertainty. But that period of time is where you can respond in advance and actually make coherent, practical measures.”

Houghton says last year’s lava flow in Puna also provides an opportunity to study how a community reacts when faced with this type of natural disaster. “We can perhaps look back and try to establish those key steps,” said Houghton. “We want to know what determined why people chose to leave, and why some people stayed.”

The National Science Foundation is funding the $3 million project, with $1.2 million going to UH Mānoa. The study brings together researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, UH Mānoa, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington, Duke University, Marquette University, and the University at Buffalo. In addition to research on Kīlauea, they’ll also study volcanic activity at the Long Valley caldera in Central California.