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Opinion: I’m a volcanologist. Here’s what this Mauna Loa eruption will teach us | CNN

Editor’s Note: Einat Lev, a volcanologist, is an associate research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Her research, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is focused on lava flow dynamics at different volcanoes, including in Hawaii. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.


When Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii started erupting on Sunday night, many people were already waiting for it. For months, the scientists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) have been noticing inflation of the ground and an increase in seismic activity at Mauna Loa, indicating the ascent of magma within the volcano’s plumbing system toward the surface.

Over the past few weeks, the rate of these changes increased. HVO staff moved from weekly status updates to daily, in anticipation of an eruption.

Monitoring the unrest is just part of being prepared. It is also critical to have detailed plans for what to do when an eruption finally happens. For the population of the island, response plans involve evacuation routes, shelters, supplies and access to the latest guidance from civil defense authorities.

Even though Mauna Loa hadn’t erupted in almost four decades, the communities of the island of Hawaii are well-versed in such plans, thanks to Mauna Loa’s little hyper-active sibling, Kilauea, which has been erupting almost continuously.

Only four years ago, these communities experienced a major disaster when fissures (volcanic cracks) opened low on the eastern flanks of Kilauea, in the middle of a quiet town, and a months-long eruption devastated the area.

Luckily, the recent eruption of Mauna Loa is less likely to cause as much damage. The lavas are coming out of fissures at a very high elevation, far from any population or property. So far, the only infrastructure that was damaged was a remote mountain road. If the eruption continues at the current rate, it might cut through a highway that links the east and west sides of the island in about a week. This will disrupt the cross-island traffic, from people going to work to transportation of goods, but hopefully will not cause significant property damage.

Like the residents of Hawaii, the volcano science community at large has been preparing its own response plans for an eruption, which includes creating protocols that would ensure that we maximize what we learn from each eruption and unrest event.

Such plans and protocols didn’t always exist. A widely cited 2018 report by the National Academy of Science pointed out that more efficient coordination and stronger collaboration were needed within the volcanology community in the US.

In response, a research coordination network, followed recently by a national center, was established to achieve these goals. I was happy to serve as one of the organizers and disciplinary leaders for both.

Through dedicated workshops, town halls at professional conferences and hands-on eruption simulation exercises, we discussed matters such as data sharing, communication tools and inclusivity. The outcomes are already manifesting in the response to the current eruption.

Within hours from the start of the Mauna Loa eruption, more than 100 volcano scientists joined a Slack workspace, where they are comparing the predictions of flow models, planning the deployment of instruments and analyzing newly acquired observations. A small, pre-defined advisory committee made of academic and USGS members is streamlining the communication between HVO and interested scientists.

This established and transparent communication channel ensures that HVO staff are free to focus on the immediate needs of the response on the ground, while data that the rest of the community needs gets collected in a coordinated, safe and equitable way.

We will learn a lot from this eruption, not only about how lava flows behave or how eruptions evolve, but also about ourselves as a scientific community. Both aspects are important to move our science forward and, ultimately, provide us with a better understanding of how our magnificent planet works.

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