HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Tina Neal remembers a time when Puu Oo was just a tiny spatter cone in her early days as a volcanologist on the Big Island back in the 1980s. Since then, she’s seen and studied all the changes at Kilauea volcano.
But never in her 36-year career would she ever have imagined last year's eruption at the lower east rift zone.
"I've not experienced an event like last summer in my entire career because it kept going and going and going," said Neal, scientist-in-charge for the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory.
Standing in front of a vast Halemaumau Crater, Neal ― who quickly became a familiar face for her expertise on the eruption ― points out the dramatic changes to the crater that resulted from last summer’s eruption.
“The crater is at least six times deeper than it was pre-eruption, and several times wider,” Neal said, pointing out the new features of the crater. “The volume of the Halemaumau complex may be as much as 10 times greater than it was prior to 2018.”
It all started in March, when Neal and her team of scientists started seeing changes to Kilauea ― even before the first fissure erupted on May 3.
"Magma was building up pressure below the ground, and we saw surface evidence of that at the summit because the lava lake rose to the point of overflowing onto the floor of Halemaumau," Neal said.
Then, increased activity over the next month led HVO scientists to believe that an eruption in the lower east rift zone was very likely.
They were right.
From the first eruption in lower Puna to the 6.9-magnitude earthquake to the many collapse events at Halemaumau Crater, Neal and her team worked tirelessly around the clock for months to gather data and provide updates to the public and government officials.
"We were working 24/7 shifts as were many of the emergency command center and the National Park," Neal said. "But we had teams of scientists out in the field in the lower east rift zone tracking the lava flows, trying to sample the lava flows regularly so we could track chemical changes."
Neal said the loss of more than 700 homes in lower Puna made this eruption one of the most destructive volcanic events in modern history.
One way to measure it, she said, would be to look at the volume of the eruption: At least a cubic kilometer of material was erupted.
To put that into perspective, the amount of lava that erupted in those three months would fill Oahu’s Aloha Stadium ― 1,000 times.
Another way to look at it: The volume of lava erupted would be enough to cover two lanes of the I-90 ― the longest interstate highway in the U.S. that runs from Boston to Seattle ― with lava more than 70 feet deep.
"This gives you an insight into how fast, how voluminous that eruption was last summer in the lower east rift zone," Neal said.
Now that the eruption is over, enough time has passed by that Neal has been able to let it all sink in.
Things are a little different for HVO scientists now. The eruption last year ultimately displaced scientists, who were working out of the HVO headquarters along the Halemaumau Crater rim next to the Jaggar museum. Now, most scientists are working out of UH Hilo as plans are underway for a new facility.
"It's always a little sad to come up to the summit and see HVO being empty," Neal said. "I think all of us very much miss being up here in the national park and working on the rim of Kilauea caldera."
But she adds that HVO has moved numerous times in the past 100 years.
Wherever their next location will be, she maintains confidence that "we'll be strong, we'll do good work, and we'll be inspired to continue to understand how these volcanoes work."
As for the eruption itself, although it was unlike anything HVO scientists have really dealt with, Neal said she and her team are still studying everything in great detail as a model to better predict future eruptions.
“One thing to remember of course is that Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and it certainly will erupt again,” Neal said. “Just because the eruption of lava has ended doesn’t mean there’s no future risk of outbreak. Of course that is the big question we’re trying to address right now ― one of many ― what’s going to happen next?”