Tina Neal: 'We need to be in this for the long haul'

Tina Neal: 'We need to be in this for the long haul'
Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said she's been moved by the dedication and stamina of her team and other responders on the ground. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

PUNA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Even before eruptions started at Kilauea's east rift zone, Tina Neal and her team of geologists knew from the sudden uptick in earthquakes and changes at the summit that something big was about to happen.

And that something — the start of volcanic eruptions at the east rift zone — became an unprecedented event that quickly thrust Neal into the spotlight, making her practically a household name and the go-to person to deliver the latest information on the eruptions.

"I think we felt this great pressure to try to be accurate about what was coming," said Neal, scientist-in-charge for the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. "It was very clear from the earthquake activity and the ground deformation that magma was moving towards lower Puna, and I hope we put out that information clearly so that people could begin to think about what was going to happen."

Neal is just the second woman to lead the HVO in its more than 100-year-long history.

Before taking up her spot at HVO, she spent almost 25 years working as a USGS geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. And she's certainly no stranger to HVO or Kilauea as she spent most of the 1980s monitoring the volcano during the early years of its ongoing east rift zone eruption.

But the eruption that started in May is something even she says is difficult to wrap her head around.

"We have not experienced Kilauea erupting from two places at once like this, from two different styles: explosive ash emissions at the summit and a big outpouring of lava at the lower east rift zone," Neal said. "In retrospect, that's not surprising that the volcano would do that, but we don't have experience with that."

And if there's anything the new eruptions have proven, it's that Kilauea is a volcano that scientists are still trying to figure out.

At the end of this, Neal says, "we'll certainly know a lot more about how Kilauea behaves."

Since the start of eruptions in early May, Neal and other scientists from all different backgrounds have been working tirelessly around the clock to gather information on what seems like an endless situation.

"There was an incredible coming together of different scientists to look at the data and try to give a forecast of what's coming," Neal said, adding that she was proud of the hard work, drive and enthusiasm of the entire team.

But lack of sleep and the endless hours are not the only challenges for these scientists: The eruptions literally pushed them out of their main work station at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

"We started getting more earthquakes, the building became damaged, and that was a very sobering reality to all of us to no longer use our home base," Neal said. "And just like the people being evacuated from lower Puna, it's very disturbing and difficult to deal with. We've had to reorient and work out of the university."

But Neal says even though no one can really predict when this will all end, it has "settled into somewhat of a rhythm of chaos," allowing her team as well as lower Puna residents who were forced to face the grim realities of the situation to get some sleep.

"Personally, I'm trying to ... pace myself because we need to be in this for the long haul," Neal said. "We don't know if this is going to go on for weeks or months even in the lower east rift zone."

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

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