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Brain Food: Flagstaff Volcanologist Studies Mt. Kilauea Lava Flows

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Elise Rumpf/USGS
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The fiery eruption of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii has devastated local communities. But it’s also helped researchers understand more about how volcanoes work. 

It’s being monitored by volcanologists from around the world including researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff. Elise Rumpf recently worked through the night over several weeks observing the glow of the oozing lava.

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“We want to know how lava flows advance, how we can predict where they’re going to be active and how long they will be active for, and which directions they’ll go. From a hazard mitigation, we really want to learn from things like this, things like land management. We want to make better decisions in the future about where we build houses and where we put infrastructure so that we can avoid this sort of devastation,” she says.

Rumpf worked with the USGS Volcano Hazards Program at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory located on the rim of the collapsing Hali Moa Moa Crater. The team was forced to evacuate to lower ground. Rumpf says the experience was like an apocalyptic movie.

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“You could see and hear these explosions. You could go outside and look at the crater and just see these ash plumes coming out. There’s just kind of a constant roar that comes from these fountains, and in some places there are these steam bursts, and these steam bursts were very, very loud. You could hear them for miles, and people 10 miles away would talk about hearing bursts from these steam bursts, and sometimes they just sounded like a really, really big crack, like an explosion, other times it would kind of sound like a jet engine, because you would have steam just moving through the lava,” she says.

Scientists like Rumpf are continuing to collect data on Kilauea’s eruption from the field and by using satellites, helicopters and drones. She expects the information will help volcanologists predict where lava flows form and further understand how magma moves underground.

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