Since its inception in 1983, Kilauea’s Pu‘u‘‘ cone has risen and fallen as magma levels in the volcano’s active East Rift Zone varied.
However, Pu‘u‘‘ announced its retirement with a rumble on April 30, 2018.
Like an unclogged sink, the once-brimming basin trickled down into the earth.
Newly freed lava crept eastward from the summit of the Big Island. The eruption will soon be felt in Leilani Estates, a 2,000-person subdivision.
Fissures erupted over roadways and into backyards, spewing ash, toxic fumes, and molten lava. Pu‘u‘‘s final swan song destroyed 700 dwellings.
The foundation of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), which was founded in 1912 by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), began to crumble.
The staff was forced to evacuate on May 16. Brian Shiro, a geophysicist at the time, remembers, “We scattered to the winds and took what we could carry.”
Shiro has always been on the cutting edge of the constantly evolving field of hazard monitoring,
but Kilauea offered the unique problem of gathering real-time data from an uncontrollable natural force.
It taught him insights that he now uses as deputy director of the USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center in Golden, Colorado, to monitor earthquakes.
Shiro moved to Hawaii in 2005 after starting his profession as a tsunami researcher.
He joined HVO in 2016 to apply his experience of seismic hazard monitoring to the difficult field of volcanology, following a spell with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“These volcanoes are live, breathing entities, and it’s thrilling to be able to feel the Earth’s pulse,” he says.
Shiro and his colleagues used a remote monitoring system comprising GPS and seismic stations, cameras, drones, and other sensors to gather data while the 2018 disaster jolted their facilities.
Hundreds of gadgets were damaged, lost, or destroyed. The solar charging panels of UV spectrometers used to monitor gas were covered in ash, rendering them useless for months.
Fortunately, the observatory had planned for such challenges years in advance.
Shiro explains, “All of our stations talked to each other in an easily adjustable fashion, allowing us to reroute a signal from one site to another without having to go there.”
He and his USGS colleagues partnered with emergency management and public safety officials during the eruption,
which concluded on September 5, 2018, and worked around the clock, posting updates that allowed inhabitants to plan their lives around the whims of a volcano.
Despite their attempts, the eruption had far-reaching consequences. Road repairs would cost $82 million, local farmers would lose $28 million in collective damages,
and communities might lose up to $94 million in tourism that year, according to federal and county officials.
Despite this, thanks to the efforts of HVO workers and other first responders, no one was killed.
The incident taught the USGS team how to deal with a quickly growing situation while also providing crucial information to those who were affected, which Shiro believes will help them in future eruption response efforts.
He now leads a team of experts at the Geologic Hazards Science Center who monitor earthquake risks.
Their work is crucial in populating the USGS website earthquake.gov, which provides current data to, among other things, educate the public and lessen the risk of harm when the ground shakes.
“After tsunamis and then volcanoes, this is a new peril for me,” Shiro adds. “Here, I’m ticking off various hazards.”