Categorized | Featured, Sci-Tech, Volcano

Volcano Watch: How it all began–the first steps toward volcano monitoring in the United States

Thomas Jaggar (second from left) prepares to measure the temperature of the Halemaumau lava lake in 1917. Pictured, left to right, William Twigg-Smith, Thomas Jaggar, Lorrin Thurston, Joe Monez, and Alex Lancaster. Photo courtesy of USGS/HVO

Thomas Jaggar (second from left) prepares to measure the temperature of the Halemaumau lava lake in 1917. Pictured, left to right, William Twigg-Smith, Thomas Jaggar, Lorrin Thurston, Joe Monez, and Alex Lancaster. Photo courtesy of USGS/HVO

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

Last week’s Volcano Watch described the events and efforts that led up to Thomas Jaggar’s arrival on Kilauea to start monitoring the volcano.

Thomas Jaggar stepped off the steamer “Mauna Kea” in Hilo on Wednesday morning, January 17, 1912, and, by noon, was at the Volcano House hotel on the northeast rim of Kilauea Caldera. He got right to work. By 4:30 p.m., he had surveyed elevations and mapped the lava lake within Halema`uma`u Crater.

The work was a one-man operation, with Jaggar living at the Volcano House hotel and making all the observations, which he reported to local newspapers every Thursday, as Frank A. Perret had started in 1911, and as we do today. It wasn’t long before Jaggar hired an assistant. Frank B. Dodge, an “athletic young Honoluluan and son of a government surveyor,” who also had hardy cowboy skills, arrived on January 24.

Besides monitoring, the main order of business was construction of a laboratory. Demosthenes Lycurgus, the well-known owner of the Volcano House hotel, spearheaded a local fund-raising effort, and Hilo businesses generously donated $1,785. The contract was awarded to H. Hackfeld & Co. (later named Amfac, Inc.), and the main building was constructed over a cellar for seismographs excavated by Territorial prisoners. The land was subleased from the Volcano House with the permission of its lessor, the Bishop Estate.

After being in Hawai`i for only 6 weeks, Jaggar received a cable from Boston asking him to come home immediately because both of his children, 4-month-old Eliza and 6-year-old Kline, were ill. He was on the next steamer east, leaving the Observatory duties to assistant Dodge.

While Jaggar was in Boston, the first scientific collaborators arrived at Kilauea to sample volcanic gases and remeasure lava temperatures. Dr. Arthur Day, Director of the Carnegie Laboratory, and Mr. E.S. Shepherd, the same scientist who had accompanied Frank Perret in 1911, arrived in early May 1912 and began setting up for their gas collections. On May 28, conditions were finally right, and they, with Frank Dodge, descended rope ladders into Halema`uma`u Crater, where they collected volcanic gases that had not yet been exposed to air—their main goal.

Until that moment, many prominent scientists believed that volcanic gases did not contain water. But as soon as they began pumping gases into collection bottles, heavy condensation within the sampling tubes indicated otherwise. “We were thereby enabled to gather a quantity of water sufficient to establish its existence among the volatile ingredients exhaled by the volcano beyond the criticism of the most skeptical.” Score one science victory for the Jaggar team.

Jaggar returned to Kilauea in mid-June with renewed focus. He was accompanied by seismologist H.O. Wood, who had recently studied California earthquakes after the 1906 San Francisco disaster. Wood’s job was to get the mechanical seismometers up and running in the cellar, now named the Whitney Vault in honor of Observatory benefactors Edward and Caroline Whitney.

“Thus in the first six months of 1912 I became a resident of a volcano in Hawaii and had an adequate laboratory . . .and the beginnings of seismograph records in the basement,” Jaggar wrote in his autobiography years later.

Throughout the first 40 years of HVO, staff scientists documented the activities of Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai volcanoes. Earthquakes, seismic tremor, and ground tilting generally preceded and accompanied changes in eruptive activity. Rare events, such as an explosive and fatal eruption of Kilauea and an intrusion beneath Hualalai, were documented. But by 1953, when Thomas Jaggar died, the basic cadre of monitoring tools still relied on mechanical seismometers that detected earthquakes and swayed to ground tilt. That was all to change in the next decade.

HVO’s story will continue in next week’s Volcano Watch article. Volcano Awareness Month activities scheduled for this week include the story of HVO’s first 100 years in a program at the Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park’s Visitor Center on January 17, a talk about the impact of lava flows on Kalapana during the past 35 years at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo on January 19, and guided hikes in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. Details about these activities are available at hvo.wr.usgs.gov or by calling 808-967-8844.

2 Responses to “Volcano Watch: How it all began–the first steps toward volcano monitoring in the United States”

  1. The man in the photo, on the left was not named Norton. His name was William Twigg-Smith, and would go on to marry Lorrin Thurston’s sister, Margaret Thurston.

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