Categorized | Environment, Sci-Tech, Volcano

Volcano Watch: How Thomas Jaggar’s vision became the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

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

This graphic is the logo and motto of the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association, a private source of financial support for HVO for several decades.

This graphic is the logo and motto of the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association, a private source of financial support for HVO for several decades.

One hundred years ago, Frank Perret, world-famous volcanologist, was watching the lava lake action in Halemaumau Crater. Honolulu businessmen and scientists impressed by his observations met to discuss how to continue them and to make a permanent observatory at Kilauea’s summit a reality.

Two years earlier, when Thomas Jaggar first visited and hatched a plan for such a station, prominent Honolulu citizens pledged their support. But the total fell short of the amount required by Jaggar’s employer and sponsor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Frank Perret’s work in 1911 removed any doubt about the utility and importance of continuous observation. The Honoluluans decided that it was time to act.

A group of 23 men, prominent in business and science, met on October 5, 1911, in Honolulu. On the table was Thomas Jaggar’s original 1909 proposal that asked for a commitment of $5,000 (more than $115,000 in 2011 dollars) per year for five years from Hawaii. The Territorial Governor attended, as well as representatives of the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, the Bishop Museum Trust, the Hawaii Promotion Committee (similar to the Hawaii Tourism Authority), the College of Hawaii, the Hilo Railroad, the Volcano House, and a long list of businesses and trusts.

“I believe,” said the Governor, “that the establishment of a permanent observatory is of intense economic as well as scientific importance to the world. By continuous observations it may be possible to predict volcanic and seismic disturbances all over the globe, with consequent saving of life and property. Then again the advantage to Hawaii from a publicity standpoint is considerable. If a national park is made at Kilauea and if scientists come here from all parts of the world to study the volcano, it will not be long before Hawaii is known to have the most interesting ‘tame’ volcano in the world.”

Those at the meeting were impressed by Perret’s scientific accomplishments, his continuous observations, and the results of the publicity surrounding Perret’s work. Scientific and geographic journals worldwide were carrying stories about his studies and adventures on the world’s volcanoes, including those in Hawaiʻi. It was so well advertised that, upon reaching the Volcano House, tourists first asked how to get to Halemaʻumaʻu and then asked if Perret would still be there.

At the meeting in October, one participant expressed worries about the effects of commercial sponsorship on a mostly scientific endeavor like a volcano observatory. “The blighting hand of commercialism” might interfere with scientific research. “Pele … is not so much interested in the promotion side of the question as the scientific.”

For both scientific and promotional advantages, a committee was founded on that day in early October. Its purpose was to raise the necessary funds and otherwise aid in the establishment of a permanent station at the rim of Halemaumau Crater to track the changes in the nearly continuously active lava lake there. The 1909 pledges were renewed, based on Perret’s successes and the long-awaited announcement that, after more than two years of delay, Professor Jaggar would return in January 1912 to continue the observations.

The committee was called the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association (HVRA), and it funded the daily operations of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory from July 1, 1912, to February 15, 1919, when HVO’s operation was transferred to the Weather Bureau. Other than personal assistance to Perret and Jaggar by individuals such as Lorrin A. Thurston, and the donations by Hilo businesses for the construction of the HVO building (on the current site of the Volcano House Hotel), the contractual obligation of HVRA funds that started in July was the first regular financial support by a Hawaii entity. It was then that the effort truly became the “Hawaiian” Volcano Observatory.

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