Volcano Explorer

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One day in June, newly minted geography graduate Jessica Williams (LAS ’14) stepped from a helicopter onto the Pu’u O’o Cinder Cone on the Big Island of Hawaii. This active eruption site in the east rift zone of the Kilauea Volcano keeps scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on high alert—and with good reason. In fact, only four days after Williams touched down, the entire area collapsed, sparking a dangerous lava flow that ultimately overtook the village of Pahoa.

Hawaii map

The USGS’ Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is located in Volcanoes National Park, one mile from the rim of the Halema’uma’u Crater. The red areas of the map above indicate the June 27 outbreak location.

Looking back on the incident, Williams admits it was slightly terrifying but also very exciting. After all, as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist intern for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), she was trained to help forecast these types of events. During her six-month internship, Williams was responsible for analyzing complex data related primarily to Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, which comprises half of the Big Island. “Often, a precursor to an eruption is a series of seismic swarms—a sequence of earthquakes in a short amount of time in a localized area,” she notes. “So each morning, I reviewed data from the onsite USGS-HVO stations and archived unusual seismic activity.”

This process isn’t as simple as it may sound. “In order to identify unusual activity, I had to learn how to read through the noise,” Williams notes. “Helicopters, military activity and even people walking around on the mountain can cause activity that could be mistaken for seismic events.” With practice, Williams was able to recognize such critical information as the duration of a quake and its origin location. The days when Mauna Loa was silent were equally important, since patterns over time give scientists a better understanding of the the rumblings of the earth.

Williams also worked with digital elevation models that simulate potential routes of future lava flows. “The models are true 3-D representations of the topography of that particular terrain—by forecasting the path of lava flows, we can keep communities out of danger,” she explains. As part of the internship, Williams taught a one-day workshop on this defensive strategy to a group of international scientists. “I had students from Indonesia to the Democratic Republic of Congo and everywhere in between,” Williams says. “It was really fun but also tough, because the class had varying degrees of GIS experience, if any, based on their local resources.”

Throughout her time in Hawaii, Williams was grateful for her own foundation in GIS, remote sensing and statistical thinking. Majoring in geography and minoring in environmental science and studies at DePaul set her up for success, even though she couldn’t have predicted some of the unique challenges she encountered. “I was assigned to help a visiting scientist conduct fieldwork by operating a GPS station in the field,” she recalls. “Carrying a 6-foot-tall GPS [tower] over lava rock and through the jungle was not easy!”

Whether in the field, in the classroom or in the lab, Williams learned as much as she could. “I worked really hard to educate myself on the history of the volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaii,” she says. “Native Hawaiians have very strong cultural and religious ties to the volcanoes and the land, and it was great to see that the USGS scientists held these connections in the highest regard.”

Follow the Kilauea Volcano lava flow.

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