Categorized | Sci-Tech

Volcano Watch: New seismic network manager feels the heat

Wes Thelen began his new job as HVO’s Seismic Network Manager amidst a flurry of volcanic and seismic activity during Kilauea Volcano’s recent Kamoamoa fissure eruption, shown here March 9, 2011. (Photo courtesy of HVO)

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

“Trial by fire” wasn’t how Wes Thelen planned to start his job as the new Seismic Network Manager for the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, but that’s what happened.

Wes and his family flew into Hilo on the afternoon of Saturday, March 5, but no one from HVO was there to greet him.

Instead, they were at the observatory monitoring both Puu Oo as the crater floor collapsed and a fissure eruption that had begun on Kilauea’s east rift zone.

Within hours, Wes was working alongside his new HVO colleagues, tracking the seismic tremor and earthquakes associated with the eruption.

Looking back, Wes says stepping into the flurry of volcanic and seismic activity was a fun way to get started at HVO — not a surprising attitude for a self-proclaimed “volcano junkie.”

Wes grew up near Lake Tahoe in California, climbing, hiking, and skiing the slopes of southern Cascade Range volcanoes and the Sierra Nevadas. His childhood experiences instilled in him a love of the outdoors, and time spent on Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta inspired him to become a volcano scientist.

After high school, Wes attended the University of Nevada, Reno, where he completed a Bachelor of Science degree, with a dual major in geology and geophysics.

As an undergraduate, he pursued his interest in volcanoes through field studies on Mount St. Helens. He also discovered the world of seismology, the scientific study of earthquakes, while taking part in experiments using seismic data to “see” the subsurface structure of the earth. That got him thinking about how seismology could be applied to volcanoes — and his career path was set.

Wes then moved to Seattle to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Washington. His research focused on a seismic comparison of Mount St. Helens and Bezymianny, a volcano in Russia, to gain insight into what drives volcanic processes. He spent two summers setting up and running a seismic network on Bezymianny to complete his study.

After completing his Ph.D. in 2009, Wes spent a year working with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), which collects and analyzes seismic data to provide timely and accurate information on earthquakes and volcanic activity in Washington and Oregon.

At PNSN, Wes gained invaluable experience setting up, maintaining, and upgrading seismic networks on volcanoes and learning more about the interpretation and transmission of seismic data, all of which prepared him for his HVO job.

In 2010, Wes accepted a USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship position with the Cascades Volcano Observatory. His research at CVO focused on a special type of seismicity that consists of multiple or repeating earthquakes of similar magnitudes originating at the same location.

This type of seismicity is more common on volcanoes like Mount St. Helens than on Kilauea, but it also occurs here, so Wes will continue his research to see whether it can be used to detect changes in magma transport within Hawaiian volcanoes.

As HVO’s Seismic Network Manager, Wes has many goals in addition to keeping HVO’s extensive seismic network running smoothly and efficiently.

For instance, HVO’s network and Hawaii Island’s persistent seismic activity create an ideal environment in which to test new tools for tracking earthquakes. So he’d like to see HVO become a hub for the development of a common set of seismic tools that could be used at volcano observatories around the world. He also hopes to improve HVO’s public Web site presentation of seismic data.

As an outdoor enthusiast, Wes is anxious to participate in ocean activities, such as surfing and snorkeling, on his days off. He also looks forward to hiking Hawaii Island’s myriad trails.

HVO is glad to have Wes on staff. He brings a fresh point of view and added expertise to our monitoring team, and we look forward to working with him for years to come.

But having missed the opportunity to offer Wes and his family the classic Hawaiian airport greeting, we now welcome them to Hawaii Island and to HVO with a big “Aloha!”

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