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VOLCANO WATCH: George Kojima as HVO’s MacGyver

September 11, 2015, 8:48 AM HST
* Updated September 11, 8:49 AM
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During the 1950s, a decade of major change in volcano monitoring, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) was moving from the mechanical into the electronic age, and staff were needed who could fulfill the requirements of the new technology.

For example, early seismographs were completely mechanical, except for their timing systems. Because these seismic instruments were not optimally tuned to study volcanic micro earthquakes, HVO’s new seismologist at the time (Jerry Eaton) worked to improve seismic observation and analysis, by building an electromechanical seismograph to the specifications he developed.

During this same period, HVO was also adding modern instrumentation to other aspects of its volcano monitoring and analysis.

In late 1958, George Kojima was hired by HVO, initially to work with equipment for analyzing volcanic gases. But these early days of modernization were not a time only for specialists. No matter what the job or when it had to be done, George was there. Wet tilt surveys, done in the middle of the night, working on seismic instrumentation, precise leveling along roads and remote parts of Kilauea Volcano, gas sampling—George did all these things, and much more.

As HVO’s seismic network grew, George became an integral part of building, expanding, and maintaining seismic equipment. This job proved to be a perfect intersection of person, interests, requirements, and technology, especially because the seismic network was still, to a large extent, designed and developed locally.

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In a career that spanned five decades, George was the epitome of a dedicated and reliable colleague, known for his helpful manner and hearty laugh. As scientists learning about volcano monitoring rotated into and out of assignments at HVO, George was one of several threads that held the observatory together.

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George understood how things worked, or should work, and how things went together. An innovator and inventor, he could fix anything. He was also an insightful, resourceful, caring, and diligent person.

Through the 1960s, radios replaced miles and miles of cable stretched across the volcano to bring data from remote sites back to the observatory. This greatly expanded the electronics component of George’s work, which required, and provided opportunities for, innovation.

HVO scientists remember field missions in the shadow of a volcanic plume, when they struggled with the electronics for sending data back to the observatory. With little more than a screwdriver, a couple of strands of wire, and electrical tape (much like the television character MacGyver), George repeatedly resurrected the reassuring hum of radio transmission.

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Another of George’s innovations resulted in United States Patent 3508240 A, Annunciator System, filed in 1968. This system was able to discriminate among the durations of elevated seismic signals coming from various stations on the Island of Hawai‘i. It automatically activated upon sustained volcanic tremor and swarms of small earthquakes that indicated a likely eruption, but would not activate on individual small earthquakes that are otherwise common in Hawai’i. Eventually this annunciator system was connected to the HVO alarm system that would notify scientists in the observatory of the changing activity.  It also led to an automated 24/7 volcano monitoring capability that provided telephone notifications of earthquake swarms and tremor to HVO scientists when they were not at the observatory.

As HVO’s seismic capabilities grew, George eventually specialized in seismic electronics and became widely recognized for his expertise. He trained scientists and technicians visiting from foreign countries and carried HVO’s technology beyond the U.S. to monitor volcanoes in the Northern Marianas Islands and in Indonesia. After retiring in 1990, he helped with the international volcano monitoring summer training programs conducted by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes.

In early August, after a brief struggle with cancer, George, a native of Kaua‘i and a U.S. Army Korean War veteran, passed away.

Looking back, we remember and honor George Kojima’s work and his central place in the evolution of volcano monitoring. Although current monitoring technologies have advanced far beyond those used when George retired, his contributions to the science of volcanology and the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory will not be forgotten.

Kilauea Activity Update

Kilauea’s summit lava lake level, which fluctuates in response to summit inflation and deflation, varied this past week between about 47 and 58 m (154–190 ft) below the vent rim within Halema‘uma‘u Crater.

Kilauea’s East Rift Zone lava continues to feed scattered breakouts northeast and east of Puʻu ʻŌʻō.  All active lava remains within about 8 km (5 mi) of Puʻu ʻŌʻō.  Some breakouts are evident by smoke plumes from burning vegetation where lava creeps into the forest.

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

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey`s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

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