UH-Hilo geology students get ‘real-life experience on a volcano’

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Taylor Burks holds the Invar leveling rod as Ski Mecham looks on at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Nov. 6.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Richy Chang holds an Invar leveling rod at a point on a fault line while leveling at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Nov. 6.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Steven Lundblad uses the high-precision optical level to measure the elevation while Ricky Chang holds the Invar leveling rod at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Nov. 6.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Sadie Nguyen and Steven Lundblad discuss measurements while leveling at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Nov. 6.

Instead of relaxing on a day off from school, seven students decided to wake up early on a recent Saturday for a long day of data collection.

The wind was strongly blowing through the group as they climbed a hill to start their adventure at Hilina Pali. With Mauna Loa and Maunakea in clear view, the self-named “Crack Team” was ready to go.


Led by geology professor Steven Lundblad, the University of Hawaii at Hilo geology students spent most of their day leveling fault lines in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Leveling is the physical measurement of the elevation between two points on a fault line, and the calculation of the relative amount of vertical change.

The experience gives the students a glance into a life as a geologist.

“It’s tedious, but therapeutic,” said student Teagan Maher. “We get to see places that people never get to see and actually calculate if there is a change and contribute that data to (the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory).”

Lundblad began bringing students to Hilina Pali for leveling after the eruption in 2018, since it is one of the few places where people can see faulting that has gone on for several hundred years.

“This type of geodesy we are doing, measuring the earth, is an old-school method that folks at HVO did forever,” Lundblad said. “It’s slowly been replaced by other types of instruments, like GPS and satellite. What we do is manpower-intensive, and HVO just doesn’t have the time for that now.”

Manpower is definitely needed, since the students have to carry two large measuring rods and locate the pins where they will make their measurements — all while navigating over rough terrain.

“We’re doing the grunt work when we get to come out here and learn what actual geologists do on a daily basis,” said student Baylee McDade. “I’ve always been interested in volcanology, so I love being out here and learning from experience.”

Although geologists are not physically using the leveling technique like they used to, this opportunity gives students a chance to go out in the field, become physically involved in geology, and help HVO by providing data.

“This is not a primary job of a geologist, but it’s nice to learn these methods, especially since they haven’t had much of chance to get into the field,” Lundblad said. “We are doing research, but the larger part is getting the experience and discovering what is involved with data collection.”

Geology students also have been able to work with HVO and talk with some of the leading experts in volcanology, which include alumni.

“The interaction is really good for students. They get tired of listening to us, and it’s nice to have other perspectives,” Lundblad said. “It’s a good cohort building experience for all of us. I think it helps allow them to ask questions and learn things in a different way.

“It’s memorable out there if nothing else,” Lundblad continued.

The opportunity to actively work on actual volcanoes and decipher data is what led Ski Mecham to go to UH-Hilo to study geology.

“This is the best place for geology, and when an eruption starts, that’s the best thing that can happen to us,” Mecham said. “Volcanoes have been a life-long obsession for me. I remember learning about them as a little girl, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Mecham started school right after the 2018 eruption stopped and wasn’t privy to an eruption until December 2020, when Kilauea began spewing lava again.

“I was so happy when the volcano finally erupted,” Mecham said. “There is just something so captivating about volcanoes. I mean, they built an extra lookout for this current eruption, because you can’t keep people away from the lava.”

After hours of measuring about two miles of fault line, students found that there has been very little change, about 3 millimeters of elevation change, over the southern mile of the survey line in about two years.

However, in the past two years, the northern mile showed consistent tilting from north to south of about 15 centimeters due to a dike intrusion, which is when magma fills in cracks in the earth and pushes the surface up.

Lundblad plans to keep bringing geology students out the park for leveling as long as they want to take advantage of the unique experience.


“We are lucky that we can come out and have a real-life experience on a volcano. Being outside and learning out here is nice and enlightening,” Maher said. “We are a small program, so we like being together.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.