Hawaii: A Living Lab For Volcanology Class
VOLCANO, Hawaii August 15, 2010 – Eight mile hikes over jagged terrain, steaming vents of lava, constant rain and lectures until 9:30 p.m. Sound like fun?
“This was the best class I’ve ever taken,” said Shaun Davis, an undergraduate student in applied geology at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. “The field work is mind blowing. As a tourist, you come to Hawaii and see cool stuff. But in this class, the doors start opening. Like the lava flows, that’s something you can’t do as a tourist. This class provides a sanctioned way into these environments that are off-limits to tourists.”
A dozen students from around the world joined professor Dr. Jeff Johnson on the Big Island of Hawaii for Geophysics 555, an intensive two-week class in seismology, volcanology and geodesy.
In addition to New Mexico Tech students, the class included international students from Australia, England, France and Germany and U.S. students from Nevada, Missouri and California. Professors Dr. Phil Kyle and Dr. Mark Murray also contributed lectures, field trips and classroom exercises.
Professors led scientific expeditions every day to explore and study the volcanoes, vents, lava tubes, cinder cones and lava flows, mainly associated with Kilauea. Over the first two days, the students deployed networks of seismic sensors, time-lapse cameras and infrasound microphones. Under Johnson’s direction, the students buried seismometers one meter down, attached the instruments to digital data loggers, programmed the loggers, added GPS signals and installed infrasound microphones. Over the next 10 days, the students checked the data loggers and their batteries every other day to make sure they were still operating optimally.
While the seismic sensor network collected data, the students toured old lava tubes – some big enough to house a two-lane highway – and conducted a GPS survey of the active rift zone. They visited Kilauea’s active lava flow, where students observed inflating lava pads, lava breakouts and methane explosions as the lava entered the forest. On the second outing, the students viewed an ocean entry. During the first outing, the students arrived just after lava consumed a house.
They also conducted a geodesy survey of the southeast slope of the Big Island, which is slowly sliding into the ocean.
Paige Czoski, a rising junior at Tech, said, “We want to measure the displacement and see how fast it’s sliding down into the ocean. They’re afraid it might cause a tsunami if it slides quickly.”
The goal of each field exercise was to examine the inner workings of the volcano – and teach students how to both gather and interpret data. For each field exercise, students were tasked with collecting data. They learned about seismic waves, fault zones, code writing and many other academic pursuits related to seismology, earthquakes and volcanoes.
For the less experienced students, the class work was daunting.
“It’s mind-bending,” Davis said. “The classroom work is extremely advanced. I’ve learned heaps. I learned stuff that other students considered very basic.”
Czoski, who had some experience writing code in MATLAB, also found it challenging.
“It was kind of difficult to understand, but once you run the program, you see how it works, then it’s easier,” Czoski said. “I would recommend this class to anyone. It’s a great experience to see how volcanology research is done … and it’s a lot of fun.”
The more experienced students did not have such a steep learning curve. Johnson said he tries to include students of varied levels of experience and he tailors the curriculum to cater to all levels.
Marianne Marot, a doctoral student in geophysics at the University of Nice in France, said she gained valuable field experience through the class. She also appreciated that the class was general enough to appeal to all students and open a window into volcano studies.
Marot’s doctoral work involves research on seismic waves in a subduction zone in Chile; however, she has had no experience deploying sensors or working with raw data.
“I didn’t even know how a seismic station works,” she said. “All this is filling in my knowledge gaps. This class also helps me understand how raw data is processed – the technicalities and the limitations.”
Marot said she has always been interested in volcanology, so Geophysics 555 was an excellent opportunity to learn the intricacies of geophysics while also getting up close and personal with active volcanoes.
“This is an excellent course with excellent teaching,” she said. “It’s very well organized and none of it was boring.”
Robin Groschup said the class was non-stop adventure, while maintaining a focus on academic pursuits in seismology. One of the more advanced students in the class, Groschup earned the German equivalent of a master’s degree in geophysics about two years ago. He has been working as a geophysicist for a tunnel construction company for 18 months.
“I’ve always been interested in volcanology,” he said. “I am thinking about a PhD, so I thought a little experience in the field will help.”
Groschup had experience with long-period seismology and data loggers. The class provided him with a broad overview of seismological studies, GPS and geodetic measurements, high-frequency geophones and time-scale measurements.
“This class has been awesome,” he said. “Every day is something new and excellent. I was so content after two days in Hawaii, but we kept doing amazing things every day.”
Michelle Parks, a doctoral student at Oxford University in England, is using interferometric satellite aperture radar, or INSAR, to study seismically actives zones in Colombia. She too had no experience in field work. She said both the geodesy and seismology exercises were illuminating for her research.
Johnson assigned students a few technical papers to read, but most of the classroom exercises involved code-writing, programming and data analysis.
“I have a much better sense of how it works,” Kirsten Siebach said. “I have a little experience in similar programming, but this is a new set of processes. It’s all fun stuff. I love geophysics.”
Siebach is a rising senior at Washington University in St. Louis, where she as been working on the Mars Rover project for three years. She is studying the soil chemistry and geology of Mars.
“Generally, it’s an ancient volcanic area on Mars,” she said. “We’re looking at the processes to understand volcanism and the terrain that volcanoes create … on Mars.”
Siebach entered the class to gain an understanding of volcanic processes and to get experience in the field, of which she had none. She said the class will help her understand the processes she’s studying on Mars.
“Plus, studying volcanoes is very cool,” she said.
For two weeks, the students and professors stayed at a youth hostel in Volcano, Hawaii. They shared cooking chores – when they weren’t venturing into nearby Hilo for dinner outings. On most days, they rose early and were in the field no later than 8 a.m. Many of the days involved serious backpacking; students lugged equipment, spare batteries, lunch, snacks and plenty of water.
“The hikes were pretty intense,” Siebach said.
But not intense enough for everyone. Groschup and Johnson jogged up Mauna Kea on a day off. Marot and Davis merely walked up the extinct volcano.
“That was my highlight,” Marot said. “Standing on top of the world. It was impressive and dramatic.”
Johnson leads Geophysics 555 every summer, alternating between Ecuador and Hawaii. Next summer, he’ll be back in South America, taking students to several active volcanoes and teaching another group about the finer points of volcanology.
– NMT –
By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech