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UH Hilo Team Provides Critical Chemical Analysis of Lava Flow

June 12, 2018, 9:22 AM HST
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A team from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo campus is providing critical information to U.S. Geological Survey scientists responding to the Kīlauea eruption by providing real-time chemistry analysis of lava samples that help determine how the lava will behave and how fast it will move.

The UH Hilo/USGS partnership on regular chemical analysis of lava flows has been in existence since 2013, but the effort took on added urgency with the new eruption.

The samples are collected daily from the flows and are brought back to the Hilo campus for testing, where they are crushed into a powder and run through an analyzer that provides chemical data.

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The testing process, which previously took weeks or months, can now be completed in hours.

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“The first time anybody is trying to do this, to really look at the chemistry at the same time the volcano is erupting,” UH Hilo Volcanologist Cheryl Gansecki. “We can do a really quick chemical analysis, we can look for tracers that tell us if anything is changing in the magma, in the system, and get that information back to HVO right away, usually within hours, or at least a day.”

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A new type of lava that is more fluid and can travel longer distances was identified through this chemical analysis.

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The chemical change detected by the UH Hilo team preceded the change in the eruptive behavior by two to three days, giving officials advance warning.

Undergraduate students at UH Hilo working on the team are gaining valuable, real-world experience while assisting in the natural disaster response.

“It’s awesome to know that I am contributing to cutting-edge, real science that’s happening now,” UH Hilo geology student Ryan Sasaki said.

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