Volcano Watch: Danish postdoctoral fellow helps HVO understand Kilauea’s explosive eruptions

  • Courtesy of JOHANNE SCHMITH

    Johanne “Jo” Schmith examines ash from Katla volcano in Iceland.

Kilauea Volcano attracts researchers from around the world. Johanne “Jo” Schmith joined the ranks of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in June to study some deposits of past Kilauea explosions — a timely endeavor given the presence of water in the caldera today.

Jo is a physical volcanologist, field enthusiast and true ash aficionado, but a career in volcanology was not an obvious choice for someone growing up in the rolling grasslands of Denmark. However, Jo has always enjoyed taking the path less traveled, and after watching scientists studying active volcanoes on TV, she knew she had to be one of them.

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Jo went to the University of Copenhagen to pursue a master’s degree in geoscience, with a double major in geology and geophysics, during her undergrad years.

Loving the outdoors, she participated in as much fieldwork as she could, and she joined a seismic survey team to work in Denmark, Ukraine and Norway, progressing to manage field camps. These experiences gave her a solid background for carrying out fieldwork in environments spanning sunny cornfields to cold barren mountains north of the Arctic Circle while dealing with multiple cultures and languages, sleep deprivation, tight deadlines, equipment failure and, once, a trip to a local police station to retrieve a seismometer someone mistook for a bomb.

Unfortunately, there were no opportunities to study volcanology in Copenhagen, so Jo raised funds to go to the University of Hawaii at Hilo in 2006 for a semester of volcanology and volcano monitoring. Field trips to active lava flows taught her invaluable lessons about real-life volcanology, and Hawaii won a very special place in her heart.

Master’s research took Jo to the Cape Verde Islands in Africa. She was the first to map and sample the volcanological features of the island of Boa Vista, and she gained new field experience dealing with hot deserts and cobblestone highways and transporting the occasional hitchhiking goat and owner between villages. She used chemical analysis of the volcanic rocks to search for their origin deep within Earth’s mantle and made a melting model of the islands.

On her way to a vacation in Iceland in 2010, Jo flew past the first puffs of the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud that made headlines around the world for closing European air space. The close personal encounter got her interested in volcanic ash. She won a Nordvulk Fellowship and moved to Iceland with her family to pursue a double PhD degree at the University of Iceland and University of Copenhagen in the physical volcanology of explosive eruptions.

Jo wanted to explain why two explosive eruptions from Katla volcano were unusually large. She conducted a field study, sampled the ash deposits from the eruptions and started investigating the formation of the ash in the lab. Specifically, she developed a new systematic way to classify ash samples in terms of how much magma-water interaction influenced the explosions that generated the ash.

She showed that water interacted differently with the magma than previously thought and that the explosive potential of the Icelandic volcanoes is grossly underestimated.

Now Jo has joined forces with scientists at HVO and UH-Manoa to study the explosive past of Kilauea Volcano, represented by the Keanakako‘i Tephra. She was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the Danish Carlsberg Foundation and will use her expertise to evaluate the role of water in explosions at Kilauea’s summit.

Jo is mapping and sampling the thickest eruptive deposits to reconstruct the dynamics of the eruptions that produced them. These are particularly important and timely studies given the growing water pond in Halema‘uma‘u. Her results will contribute to a more detailed understanding of hazards at Kilauea’s summit.

Jo also has been a passionate presenter of earth science to the public, and has been engaged in developing a new school-visiting service at the National Natural History Museum of Denmark and later at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Stevns Klint. She has worked with inquiry-based learning and talent development at the National Center for Learning in Science, Technology and Health for the Ministry of Education and has a keen interest in promoting science literacy.

Welcome, Jo, to the HVO ohana!

Volcano activity update

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting and its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Normal (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_alerts.html). Updates for Kilauea are now issued monthly. For more information about the status of Kilauea, visit https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/status.html.

Kilauea monitoring data continue to show steady rates of seismicity and ground deformation, low rates of sulfur dioxide emissions and only minor geologic changes since the end of eruptive activity in September 2018. Rates of seismicity have been relatively consistent, although at the summit episodic increased rates appear to be coincident with the inflated phase of the DI events. Sulfur dioxide emission rates are low at the summit and below detection limits at Pu‘u ‘O‘o and the lower East Rift Zone. The pond at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u, which began forming July 25, continues to slowly expand and deepen.

Mauna Loa Volcano is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Advisory. This alert level does not mean an eruption is imminent or progression to an eruption is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly. For more information about the status of Mauna Loa, visit https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna_loa/status.html.

This past week, about 118 small-magnitude earthquakes (almost all smaller than M2.0) were detected beneath the upper elevations of Mauna Loa. Two of these events, both M3.2 earthquakes, were felt by several island residents. Most of the earthquakes occurred at shallow depths of less than 6 km (~4 miles) below sea level. Deformation measurements show continued summit inflation, consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable.

HVO continues to closely monitor Kilauea and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.

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Visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/hvo_volcano_watch.html) is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

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