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VOLCANO WATCH: Christina Neal, Scientist in Charge

March 6, 2015, 7:15 AM HST
* Updated March 6, 7:16 AM
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March 8 is International Women’s Day.  This year, it’s also the day that Christina (Tina) Neal succeeds Jim Kauahikaua as Scientist-in-Charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO).  It’s a fitting coincidence that Tina, only the second woman to lead HVO in its 103-year-long history, takes the helm on the day that achievements of women are celebrated around the world.

Tina comes to Hawai’i from Alaska, where she spent almost 25 years working as a USGS geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO).  After so many years in the land of the midnight sun, swapping snowshoes for ‘slippahs’ (flip-flops) might seem drastic, but she’s no stranger to the aloha state—or HVO.

From 1983 to 1989, Tina lived in Hawai’i and was on staff at HVO.  Her work here included monitoring Kīlauea during the early years of its ongoing East Rift Zone eruption, as well as Mauna Loa during its 1984 eruption. She fondly recalls a day in March 1984, when she spent the morning atop the erupting Mauna Loa and the afternoon on the active Pu’u ‘Ō’ō vent on Kīlauea.  For a volcanologist, that’s an unforgettable day!

As part of the Big Island Mapping Project, Tina mapped the summit of Kīlauea, resulting in the “Geologic Map of the Summit Region of Kīlauea Volcano, Hawaii”. She also mapped Kīlauea’s Southwest Rift Zone for the “Geologic Map of the Island of Hawai’i”.

In 1990, Tina moved to Alaska to work at the newly-created AVO in Anchorage.  There, she monitored and studied a number of Alaskan volcanoes and their eruptions, including Redoubt (1989–1990 and 2009), Mount Spurr (1992), Augustine (2005–2006), and Okmok (2008). Working on remote Alaskan stratovolcanoes is not for the faint-hearted—steep-sided, glacier-covered volcanic mountains are hazardous even when not erupting—a tip-off to the mettle of which Tina is made.

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During ‘quiet’ times, Tina investigated eruptive histories and hazards of several volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. She was particularly interested in the physical processes of explosive eruptions—ash cloud formation, ash fall deposits, and pyroclastic flow and surge mechanisms—and the interaction of volcanic activity with ice and water. 

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In 1998, Tina accepted a two-year assignment in Washington, D.C., as the first USGS geoscience advisor to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), a USAID unit responsible for coordinating U.S. government responses to disasters overseas.  In D.C., she oversaw and initiated programs in geohazards mitigation, advised OFDA on responses to geologic disasters, and served as liaison between Federal agencies, academics, and non-governmental organizations that work on natural hazards mitigation. She also traveled to Thailand, Nepal, Ecuador, Colombia, and Kazakhstan to review or assist with the implementation of hazard mitigation programs.

When Tina returned to AVO in 2000, she resumed her work as a geologist—mapping and studying active Alaskan volcanoes. With colleagues, she strengthened the Alaska-based interagency response system for volcanic eruptions and coordinated AVO’s eruption monitoring and crisis response efforts with Russian counterparts. She is also internationally recognized for her efforts to reduce the risk of volcanic ash to aviation in the North Pacific and globally.  As part of an NSF-funded multi-disciplinary team, Tina recently helped install the first volcano monitoring equipment on the long-active Cleveland volcano in the Central Aleutians.

In addition to outstanding geologic work, Tina honed her managerial skills during two details as Chief of Staff and Deputy Regional Director for the USGS Western Regional Office in 2009–2010 and as Acting Scientist-in-Charge at AVO in 2010.

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Over the years, Tina has maintained ties to HVO.  In 2012, she helped with HVO’s 100th Anniversary Open House, and in October 2014, she spent two weeks at HVO assisting with monitoring efforts and community meetings as Kīlauea’s lava flow moved toward Pāhoa.

Tom Murray, Director of the USGS Volcano Science Center, which oversees all five USGS volcano observatories, notes that he was thrilled when she accepted the post as HVO’s leader. “Tina brings to the HVO Scientist-in-Charge position the required broad scientific background, strong communication skills, and eruption response experience, including much work with various communities at risk. I know that both HVO and the communities that it serves will be in good hands going forward,” he said.

HVO’s staff is also thrilled. Welcome, Tina—it’s great to have you back!

Kīlauea activity update

Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone lava flow fed breakouts across the leading 2.5 km (1.6 mi) of the flow, but had not advanced farther downslope. Breakouts were also active about 6 km (4 mi) upslope from the flow front, over a broad area about 3 km (2 mi) northeast of Puʻu ʻŌʻō, and on the north flank of Puʻu ʻŌʻō. The Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater also gradually subsided over the past week.

The summit lava lake level tracked summit deformation, dropping about 25 m (80 ft) associated with sharp deflation that began on March 1. The dropping lava level triggered a large collapse within the Overlook crater on March 4 that slightly enlarged the lava lake. The lake level was about 74 m (240 ft) below the rim of the Overlook crater as of Thursday, March 5.

There were no earthquakes reported felt on the Island of Hawai`i during the past week.

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