Hawaii Volcano Blog

VOLCANO WATCH: Ken Hon Returns to HVO as Scientist-in-Charge

February 12, 2021, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated February 11, 2:38 PM
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Ken Hon, Scientist-In-Charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. HVO monitors the active volcanoes in Hawaii and is located in Hilo, Island of Hawai‘i. Photo Credit: Cheryl Gansecki.

The next USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) Scientist-in-Charge (SIC) has been named, and it’s a name that Island of Hawai‘i residents may be familiar with—Dr. Ken Hon. Ken will be the 21st Scientist-in-Charge filling a position originally created by Thomas A. Jaggar, who founded HVO in 1912 and directed it until 1940.

Ken follows recent HVO Scientists-in-Charge Tina Neal (2015–2020), Jim Kauahikaua (2004–2015), and Don Swanson (1997–2004). As SIC, Ken will lead about 30 HVO staff and ensure that HVO fulfills its mission to monitor the active volcanoes in Hawaii, assess their hazards, issue warnings, and advance scientific understanding to reduce impacts of volcanic eruptions.

Ken has a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder and his work has focused on petrologic studies, geologic mapping of the internal structure of large ash-flow calderas in the United States and Russia and understanding the formation and emplacement of lava flows and lava tubes. Ken was previously an HVO volcanologist from 1987 to 1990. At that time, he was researching how lava-flow inflation and shear rates affect lava-flow morphology (for example, pāhoehoe and ‘a‘ā) and applied the concepts to assist with hazard and risk mitigation as lava flowed into Kalapana in 1990.

Ken’s work has been mentioned in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s “This Day in History” and he has been described as a pioneer by an HVO colleague (meaning old in only the best way, we’re sure). The Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption on Kīlauea’s middle East Rift Zone has been a perfect laboratory for Ken’s research, which was foundational for understanding the hazards and behavior of basaltic shield volcanoes, such as those here in Hawai‘i.

Ken returned to Colorado and continued working for the USGS through 1996 as part of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program. During this time, he focused on mapping extinct, large “Yellowstone-like” calderas in Arizona as well as the Caucusus Mountains of Russia (which changed from being the USSR during fieldwork there). These calderas were uplifted and eroded to expose 1–2 miles of their interior workings, allowing Ken to study the tops of what was their magma chambers.

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Ken and his wife Dr. Cheryl Gansecki (also a volcanologist) returned to Hawai‘i in 1996. From 1997 to 2020, Ken was a professor in the Geology Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (UH Hilo), where he taught courses in volcanology, geology of the Hawaiian Islands, volcanoes and earthquakes, volcano monitoring, petrology, and mineralogy. Cheryl created widely viewed educational films on Kīlauea’s eruptive activity, and also teaches geology at UH Hilo. Some of their previous UH Hilo students even work at HVO now.

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In 2018, Ken’s depth of experience with Hawaiian volcanism and hydrothermal activity led him to be chosen to serve on Governor David Ige’s panel that oversaw the safe shutdown of the Puna Geothermal Ventures power plant during Kīlauea’s lower East Rift Zone eruption.

During his final three years at UH Hilo, Ken served as Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, where he oversaw academic and research operations at the university and led initiatives to create a new degree in Aeronautical Science and start preparations for a degree in Data Science.

Ken’s background in volcanology, research, education, and administration will be invaluable as HVO navigates the construction of a new USGS HVO research center in Hilo and a new HVO field station in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Both facilities will be shared with the USGS Pacific Islands Ecolosystems Research Center (PIERC).

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Ken will lead a new generation of HVO scientists, which includes numerous new permanent USGS hires over the past year: Deputy Scientist-in-Charge David Phillips; Geologists Mike Zoeller, Drew Downs, Kendra Lynn, and Natalia Deligne; Geophysicists Ninfa Bennington, Andi Ellis and Art Jolly. Michelle Coombs, acting Director of the USGS Volcano Science Center, which oversees all five USGS volcano observatories, said, “We are pleased to have Ken formally re-join HVO to lead it through what will be an exciting few years, with new staff members and a new building on the horizon.”

With Kīlauea and Mauna Loa at elevated alert levels, a new eruption in Halemaʻumaʻu at Kīlauea’s summit, new employees, and new HVO buildings on the horizon, Ken has hit the ground running as HVO’s new Scientist-in-Charge.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kīlauea Volcano is erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is at WATCH. Kīlauea updates are issued daily.

Lava activity is confined to Halemaʻumaʻu with lava erupting from a vent on the northwest side of the crater. As of the morning of Feb. 11, the lava in the western, active portion of the lake in Halema‘uma‘u was about 705 feet deep, with the eastern portion of the lava lake solidified at the surface; summit tiltmeters show the continuation of inflationary tilt over the past day. Sulfur dioxide emission rate measurements made on Feb. 10 were about 1,600 t/d, below the range of emission rates from the pre-2018 lava lake. Seismicity remains elevated but stable, with elevated tremor and a few minor earthquakes. For the most current information on the eruption, go online.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to eruption from current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.

This past week, about 95 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded beneath the upper-elevations of Mauna Loa; most of these occurred at depths of less than about five miles. Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements show continued slow summit inflation, consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at both the summit and at Sulphur Cone on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, go online.

There were two events with three or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week:

  • An M2.9 earthquake zero miles SW of Pāhala at a 20-mile depth on Feb.10 at 5:31 am.
  • An M2.9 earthquake one mile ESE of Hilo at a 25-mile depth on Feb. 7 at 8:05 pm.

HVO continues to closely monitor both Kīlauea’s ongoing eruption and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity. Email questions to [email protected].

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