Researchers Seek Seismic Secrets In Hawaii

October 10, 1996

An experiment designed to help researchers find out more about the earthquakes that occur when volcanoes erupt was set up near Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano this winter.

More than $1.5 million worth of equipment, including 116 seismic stations, was deployed in a unique array around the volcano by an international team of scientists from Japan, Italy, Hawaii, California, and the Geophysical Institute.

The seismic network, which contains the highest number of seismic stations ever to be deployed on a volcano for an experiment of this type, took nearly three years to design. The unique array is being used as a test case; if all goes well, researchers hope to deploy the same configuration at other volcanoes around the world.

Information gleaned from the network should enable scientists to make more accurate predictions about when volcanoes will erupt and to determine potential hazards in nearby areas.

Most networks used as a basis for forecasting eruptions contain only about 10 seismometers at the base of a volcano, according to Volcano Seismologist Steve McNutt, one of three scientists from the Geophysical Institute to help install the network in Hawaii. Working with McNutt were Associate Professor of Geophysics Doug Christensen and Research Assistant John Benoit, a graduate student working toward his doctorate degree in geophysics.

Funds for the experiment were provided by the Ministry of Education in Japan, an island that is home to 58 potentially active volcanoes.

"Every year, volcanoes in Japan erupt and cause property damage or take lives," McNutt said. Japan's trouble has prompted scientists in that country to become some of the world's leaders in volcano seismology. Funding for the cooperative project in Hawaii was distributed through University of Tokyo Professor Yoshiki Ida, the principal investigator for the project.

The massive network around Kilauea Volcano is designed to help scientists understand some of the little-known physical characteristics about earthquakes associated with eruptions, such as where and how many of the earthquakes originate.

Researchers hope to design models based on data from the Hawaiian network that will help them distinguish among the variety of wave types and frequencies earthquakes produce.

"Just as white light breaks out to different frequencies that appear as a variety of colors in a rainbow, seismic waves traveling at different frequencies can illuminate different parts of a volcano," McNutt said.

The team selected Kilauea as the first volcano to be fitted with their seismic network because the dome has a history of eruptive activity and good access.

University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute

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