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Hawaii's Volcanic Eruption Draws Scientific Interest

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Lava advances west on Leilani Avenue on May 27.

The images from the eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii are breathtaking. Lava is gushing from cracks in the earth, blasting — at times — more than 200 feet in the air. Vog — volcanic fog — from the volcano is drifting as far as Guam.

For those living in the southeast corner of the Big Island, the eruption is devastating. But it's also presenting an incredible opportunity for scientists looking to better understand the world usually beneath our feet.

Every day, night and minute since this major eruption started, scientists have been tracking its progress. Drones buzz over the rivers of lava, blinking red and green at night against the creamsicle glow of the rising smoke. Sensors and monitors record every earthquake and eruption. And teams of volcanologists are out on foot 24 hours a day recording gas levels, lava speeds, fountain heights and whatever other data they can get.

Alexa Van Eaton, a physical volcanologist usually stationed in Oregon at Cascades Volcano Observatory, went out recently to record the speed and behavior of a lava flow from fissures 7 and 21. What struck her most was the sound: "You can hear, first of all the coqui frogs, but in the background you can hear the clinkering of the lava, which really does sound like breaking glass."

That word clinkering is actually a technical term. It's the barely audible sound and process of lava breaking.

"As a volcanologist you learn about this term clinker," says Van Eaton, "and for me, it hadn't really sunk in that that's what it actually sounds like. It's clinkering! It's onomatopoeia!"

Van Eaton and other scientists are very, very excited about the opportunity to study an active volcano. As one scientist put it: Eruptions like this are a window into the inner workings of our planet.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime process to really be a part of," Van Eaton says.

But the reality of what this volcano is doing to people, their homes and property is not lost on any of the scientists here. Brett Walker, a Ph.D. student from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, was out collecting lava samples a few nights ago.

"So as excited as I was to collect this fresh molten piece of lava," she explains, "I'm collecting it on the property of my friend's house, whose house was burning down. So it's just this complete mix of excitedness, happiness and sadness and devastation really."

Wendy Stovall, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says all of the data they're collecting will drive research for years, helping scientists better understand how volcanoes work all over the world. She says it's a generational event that will define the field the way Mount St. Helens did in the 1980s.

"And that will hopefully inform land-use planning, emergency preparedness and keep people's lives from being impacted so heavily like they have [been] during this eruption," Stovall says.

That's the reason Natalia Deligne has been watching the eruption on TV during her lunch breaks. She's a volcanic hazard and risk modeler in New Zealand.

"Our largest city, Auckland, is built on top of a volcanic field," she says. "And so the hazards and impacts we're observing on Kilauea, we can imagine that happening here."

Deligne's not alone. Scientists across the globe are watching Kilauea — in Costa Rica, Japan, Iceland and others — hoping to learn and prepare for the next eruption.

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