This Scientist Is Poking A Fresh Lava Flow With A Shovel For A Damn Good Reason

DGGS geologist Katie Mulliken at work, doing some casual lava prodding and shoveling. Alaska DGGS via Twitter

The researchers at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and every single geoscientist who works with them, are utterly fantastic. Thanks in a large part to them, we aren’t running around like headless chickens, pointing at the lava emerging from Hawaii’s Kilauea and its fissure-flecked flanks, and wondering what the hell we’re supposed to do other that scream at the witchcraft before our eyes.

So naturally, it came to my attention when a photograph of one Kate Mulliken, a geologist from the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys (DGGS), cropped up on social media channels. What she’s doing is plain to see: she’s literally shoveling some lava from one of the many, many flows that have engulfed that corner of Big Island.

Now, before we answer the more obvious question, you might be wondering why an Alaska DGGS researcher is hanging around Hawaii. Well, when an enormous geological event takes place – such as a major effusive eruption at Kilauea, say – geologists from all over the country are recruited to come over and help out. Mulliken is working with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) staff to both document new signs of activity, and report any changes in the overall eruptive behavior.

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One of these tasks includes collecting fresh lava samples, and in this shot, she’s using a shovel – a pretty ordinary one, not a special geoscience doodad – to do just that. This flow, which emerged from Fissure 20, is one of several that will provide the USGS et al. with insights into how the geochemistry of the lava is changing.

“Volcanologists collect still-molten lava to help understand how the eruption is progressing,” Dr Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University, told IFLScience. “Once you collect it (by shovel or other means) you quench or freeze the lava, often in water. This stops crystals from forming in the lava and gives you a snapshot of what the chemistry is like.”

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So volcanologists poke lava for more than just fun?

“Yes! Volcanologists by nature are very cautious and are careful about going into risky environments,” Krippner said. Adding that too many volcanologists have been lost to volcanic hazards, she stressed that they “get really close only when there is a lot to gain from it.”

One major change has already been detected. Early on in the eruption, older, cooler, less gassy magma – leftovers from a previous volcanic cycle, if you can call it that – were being effused from the fissures in the lower East Rift Zone (LERZ). When this was emptied out, kind of like the volcanic system clearing its throat(s), more fluid, gassier magma was tapped into, resulting in extensive lava flows and enormous, sustained lava fountains and “curtains of fire”.

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This, by the way, wasn’t the only photograph that caught our eye. Another, showing a gas mask-adorned geoscientist measuring the temperature of ground cracks in the Leilani Estates subdivision, also featured the seemingly jarring use of an umbrella.

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Why? As the USGS noted beneath the shot, it rains sometimes too, which “doesn’t always play well with electronics!” And here I was, thinking it was a Singin' in the Rain parody.

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