Kyle Anderson normally works out of the U.S. Geological Survey's offices in Menlo Park, remotely monitoring volcanoes for the USGS's California Volcano Observatory.
Lately, however, he's been working from some very different venues -- including watching the summit of the Big Island of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano from the abandoned dining room of the historic Volcano House, located in the now-closed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
"It's an interesting experience" viewing the volcanic activity, he said, from where tourists used to eat on white-clothed tables with a view of a lava lake in the distance.
In May, the 42-year-old geophysicist from Mountain View found himself touching down in Maui on his way to the Big Island of Hawaii just as a 6.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the area around Kilauea. Anderson happens to know a lot about Kilauea, having studied it as a post-doctoral fellow for the USGS after receiving his doctorate from Stanford University.
That earthquake occurred during a major change in the eruption pattern of Kilauea, as the magma that had formed a lava lake at the summit since 2008 disappeared into the earth, the summit subsided rapidly, and magma that had been erupting from a cone on the side of the volcano since 1983 instead started oozing out of the ground through a number of new fissures miles away, with some smack in the middle of residential neighborhoods.
The lava continued to flow until early August: Officials in Hawaii announced on Aug. 5 that it had stopped, but warned that it could restart at any moment.
According to Kelly Wooten, an information specialist for Hawaii County Civil Defense, between May 3 and July 30 a total of 8,493 acres were covered with lava, 716 homes destroyed, and 2,573 people registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after the event was declared a national disaster.
Anderson said he headed to Hawaii at the request of the scientist in charge at the USGS's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Tina Neal, when it became clear the behavior of the volcano was changing.
"I thought I was coming for a week" just before he would head off on a planned vacation, he said. Those plans were canceled, however, and Anderson was in Hawaii -- except for one week at home -- until July 22, when he was scheduled to do some field work at Mount Lassen.
"We're seeing things that we knew were possible, but we didn't expect to happen in our lifetimes," Anderson said. "It's exciting times scientifically," he said, but "it's also a tragedy for the people who lost homes."
"What we hope is that what we're learning will help us to better understand the system, so we can mitigate hazards in the future," he said.
Anderson said Kilauea has changed dramatically. "Because the summit has subsided so much, and the crater has gotten so much bigger, honestly two months ago if you had shown me a photo of what it looks like now, I would not have recognized it, it's changed so much," he said.
"Some of the basics are the same, the way the magma rises up to the summit, goes down to the rift zone," he said. "That's still happening the same as it was before it's just that the rates are so different."
When Anderson first arrived in Hawaii, he and the others from the Menlo Park USGS offices who came to help worked from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, located near the rim of Kilauea's Halemaumau crater. But the constant earthquakes that have shaken the area have so damaged the observatory that it was evacuated in May. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed on May 11. The Jaggar Museum, located near the USGS observatory, was also evacuated, along with the USGS's Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center in the park.
Since then, the USGS volcanologists and their support team have been working from the geology department at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, about 30 miles away, when they're not in the field. They'll have to move again when classes resume.
Scientists are monitoring Kilauea's summit area and the east rift zone, where the lava is flowing, using an array of instruments including GPS to measure ground deformation, cameras, satellite radar systems, aircraft and seismometers.
"These things are not abstract any more, they matter" because people's lives and homes are affected, Anderson said.
Lots of Menlo Park help
Anderson is not the only USGS employee who has temporarily changed work sites from Menlo Park to the Big Island.
Leslie Gordon, a USGS spokeswoman who lives and works in Menlo Park, said at least nine employees, including herself, have spent time on the Big Island. Employees from the four other volcano observatories operated by the USGS have also been on site, along with countless others working remotely.
Gordon said when she arrived in May, before the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory offices were evacuated, an entire team was needed to answer the hundreds of calls a day the USGS was receiving from media around the world.
Those calls have now slowed to a trickle, Gordon said. "The volcanic activity has stabilized. The news cycle has moved on. That's normal."
Gordon, who was trained as a geologist but has spent the last 15 years in communications and public affairs for the USGS, is an expert at describing how Kilauea works in nonscientific terms.
The east rift zone, from which most of the lava was flowing, is a broad moving band of weakness and cracks on the side of the volcano, she said. "It's kind of like a busted seam, if you will, down the side of the volcano."
The flows of lava that had been steadily coming from Kilauea before May came from a hole in the east rift zone that has been given the name of Puu Oo, which Gordon describes as like a "pimple on the side of this volcano."
The lava was flowing from a fissure, or long linear crack, along the east rift zone. "We're seeing this gigantic lava river flowing out of fissure 8," she said. If the lava remains in its channel, "as long as scientists keep a safe distance away from it, it's not a danger for scientists to be near it while doing field work," she said.
The USGS continues to monitor the volcano, measuring ground deformation and what gases and other toxic substances are being emitted. They also monitor the hundreds of measurable daily earthquakes associated with the volcano and post daily updates, with photos and videos, online.
The USGS scientists' expertise has made them the rough equivalent of rock stars on the Big Island. The agency has someone working at the county of Hawaii's Emergency Operations Center and sends representatives to community meetings, where people barrage them with questions. Those who wonder if they'll ever be able to return to their homes, or about the chances an explosion from Kilauea might destroy their community, are hungry for information.
"They're telling the community what we know," Gordon said. "People are looking for fortunetellers, but we're just scientists."
Anderson says that "what is going to happen next" is always the question asked of those who study volcanoes. "I wish it was possible to do a better job. In many ways, it's easier to forecast the weather than to forecast what a volcano is going to do," he said, in part because so much volcanic activity takes place far underground.
Gordon said the scientists are also human beings, and some of them have had to abandon their own homes because of the volcanic activity. Many lived inside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in addition to working there.
"People's homes are being burned to the ground and they're losing every single thing they own," Gordon said.
"Why do we study the volcano?" she asks. "Because people's lives and livelihoods are in danger."
On Aug. 30, Anderson is scheduled to give USGS Menlo Park's free monthly public lecture on the Kilauea eruption. The lectures are held at 7 p.m. in Rambo Auditorium (Building 3, second floor) at the USGS campus at 345 Middlefield Road.