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Vancouver observatory keeps eye on Mauna Loa volcano

Local volcano observatory helps Hawaii scientists monitor activity

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian Managing Editor for Content
Published: December 5, 2022, 6:02am

Scientists from the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver have been helping their colleagues in Hawaii respond to Mauna Loa’s eruption.

The Vancouver observatory is one of five in the U.S. Geological Survey’s volcano science network.

“None of our observatories are set up for a full-blown emergency response,” said Liz Westby, a geologist and communications specialist based at the observatory in east Vancouver’s Columbia Tech Center. “We’re set up to monitor. We’re not really staffed for a huge eruption. We start pulling people from other observatories.”

Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano on Earth. It last erupted in 1984. Neighboring Kilauea, also on Hawaii’s Big Island, has been erupting since September 2021. The staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in Hilo are stretched thin as lava oozing from Mauna Loa threatens to cut off the main highway connecting the island’s east and west coasts, Westby said.

Two scientists based in Vancouver flew to Hawaii last week after Mauna Loa reawakened on Nov. 27. Another 18 or so are helping remotely from Vancouver, whether by monitoring seismicity and satellite data or keeping up USGS social media feeds, as Westby is. Meanwhile, the rest of the 80 Vancouver USGS employees are continuing with their usual work, which includes keeping an eye on the Cascades.

The USGS established a regional office in Vancouver after Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. The Cascades Volcano Observatory also monitors Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and seven other volcanoes considered to be a threat in the region.

“It’s pretty exciting to work on an active eruption,” Westby said. “It’s great practice for what could happen here.”