Janet Babb: 'All of us at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory take it personally'

HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Though the homes that have been destroyed by lava in neighborhoods across the east rift zone have been among the most startling images of the Kilauea eruption, the residents who occupied them aren't the only ones who have been displaced by volcanic activity.

Most of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been closed to visitors since May 11, when steam eruptions, seismic events and the risk of flying rocks made it too dangerous to continue allowing visitors near the Halemaumau Crater.

For scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, though, the summit of Kilauea was more than just a tourist destination. Many, like Janet Babb – a geologist with the USGS – either lived or worked inside the park. Like homeowners in Leilani Estates or Kapoho, they too have been displaced from their homes.

"We worked at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory for... I'm sorry, it's all kind of a blur of time," says Babb. "We stayed up there working for quite a while. But with the withdrawal of magma from the summit, there were a lot of earthquakes. Once the explosions started happening, there was also the concern about ashfall. At some point, we realized it was probably prudent to find an alternative location because we really didn't know what might happen."

Many of the geologists have taken up residency at the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus, where students and professors are now sharing their space with scientists who study the volcano for a living.

"Fortunately for us, the eruption really got in full force as the school year was ending," said Steve Lundblat, the chair of geology at the university. "We've hosted the HVO scientists for the last month, and there's been a lot of activity for them that we've tried to assist with in any way we can."

So far, the arrangement has worked out for both sides. Students at the school have been able to conduct real-world research, and HVO scientists are as on top of the goings-on at Kilauea as ever.

"We're monitoring (Kilauea) 24/7," says Babb. "We have field crews in the lower east rift zone around the clock. We have geologists on the clock 24/7. During daylight hours, we have somebody keeping eyes on what's happening at the summit. We're still getting data from our monitoring network."

The eruption has thrown many lives into chaos; hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and thousands of people have at least been temporarily displaced. Despite the uncertainty, the scientists say they're taking their work more personally than ever.

"We live on the island," says Babb. I think for all of us at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, our scientific curiousity, this is what we live for as volcano scientists. But it's different when you know people, your friends and family are being so severly impacted by the eruption. That changes the dynamics of it. That's why we carry on."

This profile is part of our digital series, "Pele's Path: People of Puna." 

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