Back in the summer of 2018, Wendy Stovall stood and stared into the heart of an inferno.
Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano had been continuously erupting in one form or another since 1983. But from May to August, the volcano produced its magnum opus, unleashing 320,000 Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of molten rock from its eastern flank.
Dr. Stovall, the deputy scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, recalls moments of being awe-struck by the eruption’s incandescence: lava fountains roaring like jet engines, painting the inky blue sky in crimson hues. But these briefly exhilarating moments were overwhelmed by sadness. The people of Hawaii would suffer hundreds of millions of dollars in economic damage. The lava bulldozed around 700 homes. Thousands of lives were upended. Even the headquarters of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory itself, sitting atop the volcano, was torn apart by earthquakes early in the crisis.
Like many volcanologists who were there during the eruption, Dr. Stovall is still processing the trauma she witnessed. Sadness is not quite the right word to describe what she feels, she said: “Maybe it’s an emotion that I don’t even have a word for.”
But not only trauma has resulted from the crisis: It has also produced something of a sea change in the way scientists and their emergency services partners are able to respond to volcanic emergencies.
During Kilauea’s devastating outburst, responders found novel ways to deploy drones and used social media to help those in the lava’s path. They also achieved more ineffable insights into how to keep cool in the face of hot lava. And this pandemonium of pedagogical experiences will prove valuable in times to come. The United States is home to 161 active or potentially active volcanoes — approximately 10 percent of the world’s total. When — not if — a Kilauean-esque outburst or something more explosive takes place near an American city, scientists and emergency responders will be better prepared than ever to confront and counter that volcanic conflagration.
A Patchwork of Fire
In volcano preparedness, knowing where the next socially disruptive eruption may take place is half the battle.
Not all of America’s active volcanoes are equally hazardous. Many in Alaska are situated on extremely remote islands. The Yellowstone supervolcano may sound frightening, but this cauldron does not deserve to be a boogeyman. “The odds of a supereruption happening are infinitesimally small,” said Emilie Hooft, a geophysicist at the University of Oregon.
California is home to at least seven potentially active volcanoes. Although they are “mostly where the people aren’t, a lot of California’s infrastructure crosses these volcanic zones,” said Andy Calvert, the scientist-in-charge at the Geological Survey’s California Volcano Observatory. An eruption at any of them could destroy power lines, highways, waterways and natural gas pipelines.
The volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest are not dissimilar to bombs lingering in the background of populous American ports, towns and cities. Some, like Mount St. Helens, are infamous for giant explosions and superheated, superfast exhalations of noxious gas and volcanic debris.
Others, like Washington State’s Mount Rainier, are more insidious. The volcano is known for making concrete-like slurries called lahars, in which freshly erupted ash mixes with snow or rainwater and gushes downslope, consuming everything in its path. These lahars “are a huge and real hazard,” Dr. Hooft said. Populous settlements within or at the terminus of the volcano’s many valleys, including parts of the Seattle-Tacoma metropolis, are built on ancient lahar deposits — and as the geologist’s refrain goes, the past is the key to the present.
Another major concern is America’s poorly understood volcanic fields: sprawling collections of cones, craters and fissures nestled between countless towns stretching from California to Washington State. Except for Mount St. Helens, said Dr. Stovall, “it is statistically more likely that an eruption will occur from any one of these volcanic fields than from one of the charismatic stratocones of the Cascades.”
While constantly watching Kilauea, the eyes of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory also remain fixed on Mauna Loa, Kilauea’s colossal neighbor.
It has not erupted since 1984 — a disquietingly long pause. But in recent years, Mauna Loa has been grumbling. Several of this titan’s lava flows have come agonizingly close to obliterating the city of Hilo in the past century, and although they have serendipitously stopped short, they may one day succeed.
When Ken Hon, the scientist-in-charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, was asked if a future Mauna Loa eruption concerned him, he replied with a question of his own.
“Are you wary of a tiger when it’s sleeping?” he said. “It’s a sleeping tiger in your yard, and there’s no cage, and you’re just kind of watching it.”
A Kilauean Education
Fortunately, the lessons learned from the 2018 eruption have strengthened the armor of America’s volcanic vanguard.
Kilauea took not just the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory but the entire U.S. Geological Survey to school. During the 2018 crisis, staff from the Alaska, California, Cascades and Yellowstone observatories headed to Hawaii to assist, like white blood cells from throughout the body rushing to the site of a pathogen’s incursion. Despite some parts of America not seeing an eruption for over a century, this across-the-spectrum response allowed scientists from the Geological Survey to “keep the tools sharp,” Dr. Calvert said.
Hawaii’s lava factories are now better understood. They may sometimes be the deliverers of destructive horrors, but “volcanic eruptions are this amazing opportunity for scientists to do basic research,” said Ken Rubin, a volcanologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The eruption in 2018, revealed that “there’s a lot of ways this volcano can operate,” he said.
Some key observations made during the 2018 crisis are likely to apply to countless other volcanoes, including those enigmatic volcanic fields on the West Coast. For instance, Kilauea stopped erupting despite retaining most of its magma. A change in the rhythm of its seismic soundtrack also revealed changes in the magma’s gloopiness, a key factor in an eruption’s explosive capacity. Monitoring such changes may help forecast how future eruptions will evolve, and how long they will continue once they start.
Kilauea’s outburst also changed the way scientists communicate with the public.
“It was the first big eruption we’ve had in the social media age,” said Tina Neal, director of the Geological Survey’s Volcano Science Center. During the eruption, her colleagues provided a constant stream of updates on Facebook and Twitter, debunking misconceptions and rumors. This proved to be one of the most effective ways of providing lifesaving advice to those fleeing the eruption.
“I’ll admit that I was skeptical of spending too much time delivering information via social media,” said Ms. Neal, who was the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s scientist-in-charge during the 2018 eruption. She was concerned that in doing so she would mainly be catering to curious but unaffected parties further afield.
But she said she was happy to be proved wrong — and added that she thinks the Geological Survey’s volcanologists now have an effective social media operation that can spring into action whenever a volcano starts twitching.
Drones and Tweets
The 2018 crisis also kick-started a nationwide technological revolution. It had long seemed strange to Angie Diefenbach, a geologist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, that management did not appear to see the value of using drones to study erupting volcanoes in the United States, particularly as academics both inside and outside the country had been doing just that for several years.
Kilauea’s dramatic eruption was a paradigm-shifting moment. Ms. Diefenbach, who was already equipped with a pilot’s license, was sent to the effervescing volcano with a handful of keen colleagues and a small fleet of flying robots.
The pilots had a steep learning curve. The drones frequently flitted over the incandescent fury emerging from fissure eight, one of the two dozen cracks in the volcano’s flank, to film the seemingly endless flow of lava and sniff the chasm’s noxious gases.
“That fissure eight plume was intense, and the river of lava was extremely hot,” Ms. Diefenbach said. Every now and then, an upswell of heat would knock the levitating robots skyward by a couple hundred feet, threatening a loss of control that might plunge them into molten rock. Fortunately, they all survived to fly another day.
Immediately, she said, the powers that be recognized that drones “really add a fundamental piece to the story” for volcano monitoring. Bird’s-eye views of lava flows allowed scientists to study the evolution of the eruption in real time. And communities in the path of the lava could be given advance warning; at one point, a man trapped in his home at night and surrounded by lava was led by a drone through the maze of molten rock to safety.
Ms. Diefenbach, who works with uncrewed aircraft systems like drones for the Volcano Science Center, is now training more drone pilots across all five volcano observatories. While awaiting the next socially disruptive eruption, some of her drones are being used to study volcanoes that could one day reawaken, including inaccessible snowcapped peaks in Alaska.
Meandering Paths Forward
This is not to say that the scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey have been “twiddling their thumbs waiting” for a ruinous eruption like Kilauea, Ms. Neal said.
The agency’s staff are working constantly with their academic partners to improve their understanding of America’s fiery mountains. They are also continually learning from the way other countries respond to their own volcanic crises. The scientists regularly team up with emergency managers to conduct drills, including the annual evacuation exercises near Mount Rainier.
But the path to volcanic enlightenment is not a straight line. Although all of America’s active volcanoes are monitored, some considered to be high risk are not adorned with sufficient sensors. This can be a result of budgetary constraints, the difficulty of instrumenting treacherous volcanoes and, in some cases, red tape preventing the placement of sensors in wilderness areas.
Climate change and California’s increasingly intense wildfires are also aggravating the situation. A newly installed ground deformation sensor on Mount Shasta, for example, was taken out by this summer’s furious Lava fire, Dr. Calvert said.
Despite these setbacks, the Geological Survey continues to strengthen its monitoring efforts, with its network of instruments on several particularly hazardous volcanoes being upgraded and expanded. It also participates in tabletop exercises to test everyone’s mettle. One that took place over several days last November pitted scientists against a hypothetical eruption of Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Like the Kilauean eruption, this virtual volcanic gauntlet served up an underappreciated reminder: The people responding to volcanic crises may have extraordinary skill sets, but they are not superhuman.
“The general feeling afterwards was just of overwhelming exhaustion,” said Diana Roman, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of those who ran the exercise. “And that was part of the point.”
When it comes to America’s readiness for the next eruption, preparing scientists psychologically for the reality of a prolonged volcanic crisis is a necessity.
In 2004, when Mount St. Helens began to cough and splutter in a concerning manner, Dr. Moran became wrapped up in a surfeit of tasks. “It was about week three when my wife brought our kids to say good night to me,” he said. “That was my indication that I was probably doing too much. I should at least be able to get home and say good night to my kids.”
These experiences have taught Dr. Moran and his colleagues an invaluable lesson: “You can’t have people getting burned out right off the bat,” he said. Giving individuals clear roles ahead of time, and making their teams small and manageable, will hopefully prevent this sort of exhaustion in the future.
Though it’s not only scientists who can get drained during lengthy volcanic eruptions. As the weariness over the pandemic is grimly demonstrating, “it’s hard to keep people’s attention on something for a long time,” said Brian Terbush, the program coordinator for earthquakes and volcanoes at Washington State’s Emergency Management Division. “They get really tired of it. I’m tired of it.”
And protecting the public is considerably more difficult if people are not paying attention.
Fires of the Future
The location, timing and effects of America’s next volcanic disaster remain unknown. Even after a significant eruption begins, forecasting its evolution will be difficult.
“Even on the world’s best instrumented volcano,” said Dr. Hon, referring to Kilauea, “we still don’t really understand it that well.”
And yet, despite having so many dangers and complications to contend with, no one died and thousands of lives were saved during the 2018 crisis.
Those who were involved in the Kilauea response hope that the public will remember the role geoscientists played during the next volcanic emergency and see them as trustworthy protectors.
Not everyone will. “We often get told that we’re lying, and we’re hiding things, because we’re the government,” said Dr. Stovall — an uncomfortable echo of the similarly unfounded charges of conspiracy that many have directed toward public health professionals during the pandemic.
But the volcanologists and their peers say they will remain unwavering in their mission to decipher the country’s beguiling but occasionally menacing volcanoes.
“We are doing our best,” Dr. Stovall said. “And we’re in it for the greater good.”