USGS - Science for a changing world

100 Years of Volcano Monitoring in the United States

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A geologist standing on a field of hardened lava pulls a sample from a glowing stream of hot lava.

For 100 years, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory have been monitoring volcanoes to help make communities safer. In this photo, an HVO geologist takes a sample of active lava within a lava tube. These samples are routinely analyzed to track changes in lava chemistry.

This year, the USGS is proud to celebrate 100 years of continuous volcano monitoring in the United States.

Monitoring began in 1912, when Thomas A. Jaggar, Jr., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) in the then U.S. territory of Hawai‘i.

The HVO became a permanent part of the USGS in 1947, and today the USGS Volcano Hazards Program monitors volcanoes across the United States and helps monitor others around the world — watching for signs of unrest that can lead to hazardous conditions, learning more about volcanic processes and risks, and helping to make communities safer.

Living with Volcanoes in Hawai‘i

“Volcanoes are an important part of life on Hawai‘i Island, and all of us who live here must learn to live safely within the dynamics of an ever-changing volcanic environment,” said Jim Kauahikaua, HVO’s Scientist-in-Charge. “Part of this celebration is recognizing the tremendous advances we’ve seen in the methods, tools, and technology used to study Hawaiian volcanoes and how that has helped lead to a remarkable increase in our understanding of how volcanoes work.”

“The HVO helps ensure the safety and welfare of citizens of our island by forecasting potential destructive volcanic activity,” said Quince Mento, former Administrator, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Agency. “Without the HVO’s dedicated staff our public safety agencies would not be able to mitigate loss of life and property in a timely fashion. We celebrate HVO’s 100th anniversary and its continued role in protecting our island residents and advancing the science of volcanology.”

Built by Lava

Lava first erupted above sea level more than 500,000 years ago to begin forming the Island of Hawai‘i. Since then, countless eruptions from its five volcanoes have built the “Big Island” to a towering height of more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft).

Hawaii’s two most active volcanoes — Mauna Loa and Kīlauea — erupt lava frequently enough to pose a serious hazard to property on many parts of the island. About 40 percent of Mauna Loa, the most massive volcano on Earth, has been covered by lava in the past 1,000 years, and over 90 percent of Kīlauea’s surface is covered by lava less than 1,100 years old.

The current eruption of Kīlauea has been ongoing since 1983, and HVO staff members have been dedicated to helping keep people safe. In 1990, for example, lava flows threatened the town of Kalapana. During this difficult period, HVO scientists provided detailed information 7 days a week on lava movement to the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense, which made decisions regarding evacuation, road closures, and safe vantage points for residents and visitors.

As land development expands toward areas of relatively high volcanic hazard, the threat to life and property on Hawai‘i will increase accordingly.

“Volcanic activity and its associated earthquakes are responsible for Hawai‘i’s fertile soil, rainfall, isolated habitat for unique species, breathtaking natural beauty, but also, unfortunately, its geologic hazards,” said Marcia McNutt, USGS Director.

Night shot of lava from the Pu'u 'Ō'ō-Kupaianaha eruption, active since 1983, meeting the ocean. A littoral explosion appears as streams of glowing orange against a dark background..

When lava from the Pu'u 'Ō'ō-Kupaianaha eruption, active since 1983, meets the ocean, large littoral explosions can result. Photo Credit: Michael Poland, USGS

USGS Mitigating Volcano Hazards around the World

The USGS Volcano Hazards Program monitors volcanoes across the United States and helps monitor others around the world for signs of unrest that can lead to hazardous conditions. The USGS and its partners also issue warnings of impending eruptions to help prevent loss of life and property.

The USGS now operates five volcano observatories monitoring volcanic activity throughout the United States and its territories:

Each observatory provides regular updates of volcanic activity within its area of responsibility with updates becoming more frequent as activity escalates.

In addition, the USGS provides long-term volcano hazard assessments for a growing number of volcanoes, provides public education materials about volcano hazards, and participates in emergency management exercises meant to assure public safety during times of volcanic crises.

A national assessment and plan for U.S. volcano monitoring, called the National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS), was proposed in 2005 to establish a proactive, fully integrated, national-scale monitoring effort that ensures the most threatening volcanoes in the United States are properly monitored in advance of the onset of unrest and at levels commensurate with the threats posed.


See Hawai‘i’s Volcanoes Now

You can watch volcanoes in real time on USGS webcams throughout Hawai‘i.

Join USGS Celebratory Events in Hawai‘i

In celebration of its centennial milestone, the HVO is hosting events throughout the year, with most activities in January during Hawai‘i’s Volcano Awareness Month. These public events will help promote awareness of Hawai‘i’s active volcanoes and the importance of understanding how volcanoes and earthquakes can impact island communities. Public programs and activities on Hawai‘i Island, held in cooperation with the National Park Service and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, include island-wide talks by HVO scientists and guided hikes in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

A centennial open house will be held at HVO on Saturday, January 21, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“The activities planned during Volcano Awareness Month are an engaging and stimulating way for residents and visitors alike to learn more about the fascinating processes that have formed and continue to shape these enormous volcanic features and how to live safely in the vicinity of such powerful geologic forces,” said McNutt.

For more information about HVO Volcano Awareness Month programs and centennial events, please visit the HVO website, email, or call (808) 967-8844.