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HVO’s Masked Geologist Heads North to Alaska

Posted June 17, 2017, 05:04 PM HST
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A masked Tim Orr, on his last day of field work as a USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist, collected a sample from Kīlauea Volcano’s active lava flow on May 31, 2017. The face mask and heavy glove on his left hand provide protection from the intense radiant heat of molten lava. Orr (inset) has accepted a research geologist position at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage and departs HVO this week. USGS photos.

In recent photos of a USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist collecting lava samples, you might have noticed the face mask that’s worn to protect exposed skin from the intense radiant heat.

The mask also conceals the wearer’s identity, raising the question, “Who is that masked geologist?”

Though not intentional, the concealment is fine with Tim Orr, the geologist behind the mask, who prefers to avoid the limelight. But we think it’s high time to recognize his contributions to volcanology in Hawai‘i, especially since he’s leaving HVO this week.

Tim accepted a research geology position at the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) in Anchorage, so he’s headed north to Alaska.

Lest you wonder why he’d willingly leave “paradise,” Tim hails from Montana, so he’s familiar with snow and grizzly bears. He’s actually excited about getting back to a climate and outdoor activities similar to those of his youth. He also looks forward to learning about Alaska’s volcanoes, their different styles of eruption and new monitoring techniques.

Growing up near Yellowstone National Park, which is atop a volcanic hot spot, Tim was bitten by the “volcano bug” early on. While studying geology at the University of Montana, he spent four months volunteering at HVO in 1994.

After completing a master’s degree in geology at Northern Arizona University, and with a hankering for volcano monitoring work, Tim returned to HVO in 2002 as an operational geologist. By 2007, he was leading HVO’s Kīlauea geology group, overseeing monitoring efforts and hazard assessments for the ongoing East Rift Zone (Pu‘u‘ō‘ō) eruption. In 2008, his duties increased with the onset of Kīlauea’s summit eruption within Halemaʻumaʻu.

Despite his heavy HVO workload and family responsibilities, Tim managed to complete a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2015. Hats off to his time management skills!

During Tim’s tenure at HVO, much has happened on Kīlauea, and he’s been in the middle of it all. A few examples: Tim was one of the HVO scientists who discovered the explosive deposits that marked the onset of the ongoing summit eruption in March 2008. Three years later, just as the Kamoamoa fissure eruption began, he straddled widening ground cracks on Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone to capture spectacular video of lava spewing to the surface. During the 2014-2015 Pāhoa lava flow crisis, his detailed mapping and keen field observations were essential to keeping Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense and the public informed.

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Tim is an excellent research scientist who integrates detailed observations and geophysical data with his geologist’s intuition. For example, at the start of Kīlauea’s summit eruption, he recognized that the occasional lava lake explosive events were triggered by large rockfalls from the crater walls. The cause of these explosions was initially debated, but high-resolution webcam imagery later provided conclusive support for his model.

Tim was instrumental in developing HVO’s modern webcam network and time-lapse camera systems to track volcanic activity. This opened a whole new way of monitoring and conducting research on Hawaiian volcanoes.

He also employed an innovative technique using structure from motion software to merge aerial imagery captured during overflights. This enables scientists to produce maps of active lava flows without having to walk many miles over rough and hazardous terrain.

Tim’s accomplishments at HVO and his contributions to a better understanding of Hawaiian volcanoes are extensive—too long to list here. The same is true for his community service. “Thank you” hardly suffices for the countless public talks, “Volcano Watch” articles and interactions with students he’s provided over the past 15 years.

Asked about the best part of his job at HVO, Tim replied, “There’s never a dull moment.” And the worst part? His response was identical, reflecting the intense demands of Kīlauea’s non-stop and ever-changing activity.

Tim is a valued USGS colleague and good friend to all of us at HVO. Generous with his time and knowledge, he’s always available to answer questions or mentor new staff. His calm demeanor and sense of humor are great assets in a work environment that often requires long hours and, at times, an abundance of stress. AVO’s gain is certainly HVO’s loss.

You will be greatly missed Tim, but we wish you all the best in Alaska. A hui hou… until we meet again.

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