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How Vancouver Is Helping Study The Hawaii Eruption

<p>USGS scientists Larry Mastin and Liz Westby monitor the Kilauea eruption from the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.</p>

USGS scientists Larry Mastin and Liz Westby monitor the Kilauea eruption from the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

Thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean separate Vancouver, Washington from the volcanic eruption in Hawaii. But a group of local scientists are playing a big role.

At the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory, about 20 people – nearly half of the scientists on staff at the Vancouver observatory – are closely following the latest eruption from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. 

One of them is geologist Liz Westby, who works at the seismic operations headquarters, a windowless room with two giant screens on the wall.

The monitors update in real time, with live data and webcams streaming video of the lava fissures. One of them shows a giant ash plume that rises from the crater at Kilauea’s summit.

“This shows where the lava is flowing and where previous flows have gone,” said Westby, pointing to a daily printout of the volcano’s activity.

From Vancouver, Westby has been helping out her colleagues at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. For the past two weeks, she’s been handling the observatory’s social media and getting information out to the public.

“We’ve been getting almost one million people checking in through our Facebook,” Westby said. “They’ll say hello from places like Ireland, Colorado, Iran. It’s incredible.”  

Westby said eruptions like this involve attention around the clock and are too big for one observatory to handle alone, especially one the size of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which only has about 25 people on staff.

“This is a very large eruption for 25 people,” said Westby. “In Vancouver, we’re able to take a look at some of the live feeds and provide a little bit of analysis while they’re out in the field collecting the data."

Two of Westby’s colleagues are a little closer to the action. They recently flew to the Big Island to take measurements and assist on the ground.

Many of the geologists based in Vancouver have Hawaii ties. Larry Mastin studies volcanic ash hazards at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, but he spent the first 10 years of his career in Hawaii looking at explosive eruptions.

“Many of us have worked there at some point,” said Mastin, “or they’ve been out here to help us.”

In 1980, it was staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory who were some of the first responders to the explosive reawakening of Mount St. Helens, said USGS Outreach Coordinator Carolyn Driedger.

Dreidger said the five USGS volcano observatories on the West Coast and Hawaii have historically worked together closely on eruption responses.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Dreidger said. “And it takes dozens of volcano scientists to address a volcanic eruption.”

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Molly Solomon