60 Minutes story on Icelandic eruption features UH professor, alumni

A new volcano, Geldingadalir, has erupted in Iceland. This newest volcano offers rare opportunities for close-up exploration and research into eruption processes and how to better predict future eruptions. Bill Whitaker, host with the national television program 60 Minutes, talked with University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) alumni Thorvaldur Thordarson and Christopher Hamilton, and SOEST Earth Sciences professor Bruce Houghton during the eruption response.

After a drastic decline in volcanic activity from the Halema‘uma‘u lava lake on Kilauea Volcano by April 2021 and with no access to the Italian volcano Stromboli during the COVID-19 pandemic, Houghton connected with Thordarson, who is now a professor in Volcanology and Petrology at the University of Iceland to find a new target for his research.

Given their robust working partnership and the dynamic and rapidly changing character of the eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland, the two researchers developed a plan to capture high resolution videos of the Reykjanes fountains to quantify the changing patterns of eruption style and strength and link this to drone-based studies of the evolving craters, lavas, and cones.

When Houghton arrived at the volcano, he witnessed a spectacular sight.

“These were easily the best, most breath-taking fountaining eruptions that I have ever seen,” said Houghton. “Conditions were perfect for documenting their activity—we could approach safely to the very edge of any part of the system of linked lavas and cones and had driving access to many key observation points.”

Now back in Hawai‘i with the video footage in hand, Houghton and researcher Caroline Tisdale will measure key parameters like eruption rate, particle sizes and velocities that determine the style and intensity of these unusual eruptions, which sit in the middle ground between Hawaiian lava fountains and short-lived explosions like Stromboli.

“Studying Geldingadalir diversifies the range of volcanic activity that forms the basis of a larger National Science Foundation-funded collaboration with SOEST alumni Matt Patrick at the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory, Thorvaldur, and Ed Llewellin at Durham University,” said Houghton.

The collaboration continues to provide new insights into the mechanisms affecting when, why and how basaltic volcanoes erupt. This information feeds directly into hazard and impact studies that are particularly important, in light of the 2018 eruptions and devastation at Kīlauea.

“The 2018 eruption is likely to remain the benchmark for destructive interaction of prolonged basaltic eruptions and communities on their flanks for some decades,” said Houghton. “With our research, we hope to reduce the risks and loss associated with future volcanic eruptions.”