NOVA Online: Lava Sampler
old volcano NOVA: Maunaloa, this huge mountain, how was it formed?

GARCIA: The sister volcano to Kilauea is Maunaloa. Its last eruption was in 1984. And it erupts in much the same way as Kilauea. It often starts with a fissure, an open crack, through which lava wells to the surface. In many cases these lava flows are much larger and much more spectacular than those of its smaller sister, Kilauea. The last eruption in '84 produced a lava flow that threatened the town of Hilo, a forty thousand population center. But luckily it stopped before reaching the town. The last eruption to threaten Hilo or enter Hilo was in 1881. And the area that Hilo has now grown into would have been covered by that eruption.

NOVA: How about the fumes?

GARCIA: This part of Kilauea the fume is much reduced because at Pua most of the gas is released. Nevertheless there is a fair amount of sulphur dioxide that's coming out which is extremely harmful to you. So in order to avoid this sulphur-rich gas we do two things. We carry gas masks with us just in case we are caught off guard, but luckily here in Hawaii we have strong prevailing trade winds so we are able to move on the upwind side of the volcano, the vent, and do our work with little or no risk of getting gassed by the rising sulphur. So it's relatively safe, as long as the wind is blowing.

NOVA: Why are you taking these samples and what does it tell you about lava and the volcano?

lava pit GARCIA: The purpose of our sampling program, which has gone on now for over eight years, is to try and understand how magma moves within the volcano. And ultimately the goal is to be able to predict where and when eruptions will occur. We know so little of the subterranean parts of volcanoes, we really don't understand how the magma moves through the volcano.

NOVA: What's it like to work out here where it is so primal a force and the landscape is changing constantly.

GARCIA: Kilauea is undoubtedly one of the special places on earth to work. It's an exciting place. All your senses are alerted. The smell, the ground shaking, the heat from the molten lava. It's an exciting place to be. It's always changing, there is always something new, and one of the fun parts is bringing out people who haven't seen it before and share in their enthusiasm for seeing one of the basic forces of nature in action. So it's always a joy to come out here and be at Kilauea.

old volcano

NOVA: What about the way the landscape continually changes?

GARCIA: We take for granted how things look, that they are going to be that way forever, but Kilauea is such an active dynamic place that it's always changing, this area we are sitting in now once used to be a rainforest. It is now covered with this barren rock and in the future, trees will form here after us. There are ferns growing here now. The Hawaiian plants are the first plants to come in after an eruption like this, to colonate an area, to establish it and then later, other plants will join it. But it's an exciting place to be to see these changes that go on before you.

INT: Do you feel there is more than a physical force here?

MG: I have been working here at Kilauea now for over eight years and in the early part of the eruption I used to come out at night and sample. And particularly at night when there aren't helicopters, when the activity is much slower, you have an opportunity to sit back and reflect on what you are seeing—the glow of the clouds in front of you. And in many cases, when we've taken photographs of the rising clouds, you see images that look remarkably like pele (Hawaiian god). So it's very haunting to think that there is a force behind all of this and you're merely a passenger riding along on this grand voyage.

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