The Man with the Hot Hand

UH Volcanologist Bruce Houghton

On May 3, 2018, activity along Kilauea volcano’s East Rift Zone started what became the first billion-dollar volcanic disaster in the United States. Residents of the Big Island of Hawai‘i are familiar with the powerful and active volcano—as it shapes the terrain, culture, traditions and daily activities. However, the 2018 Kilauea eruption was a uniquely large event for Hawai‘i, and perhaps the country, in both human and geologic terms.

Over several months, fountaining vents, lava flows and volcanic gases affected nearby homes, communities and ecosystems, necessitating an unprecedented level of response.

Houghton at Kilauea volcano during the early stages of Fissure 8; May 2018

Bruce Houghton, the Gordon A. Macdonald Professor of Volca­nology and Science Director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa), was part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO)-led field response team that was active twenty-four hours a day for three months.

“The eruption required intuitive, cognitively-complex decisions in the face of demanding real-time situations,” said Houghton. “It showed that Hawai‘i has very robust systems in emergency management, in crisis response and in science.”

Field crews spent eight-hour shifts, day and night, talking with residents of affected neighborhoods and monitoring new and ongoing lava flows, earthquakes and activity at Kilauea’s summit. The University of Hawai‘i played a key role, wherein scientists from both UH Hilo and UH Mānoa campuses fully integrated with the Observatory.

“The pressure of 24/7 field operations was immense,” said Houghton. “The science response drew USGS’s volcanologists from across the country, rotating in and out of the team to avoid burnout. Nine of the 40 or so scientists involved were current graduate students or alumni from the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST). That’s an outstanding endorsement of SOEST’s commitment to training of volcanologists.”

“It was like a daily reunion of UH’s 21st century students in physical volcanology,” commented current UH Mānoa doctoral candidate Brett Walker.

“The main distinction between the 2018 Kilauea eruption and past crises is not the eruption itself but the proximity of thousands of residents to the eruption site,” said Houghton. “This problem mostly needs human solutions. A major dilemma as we move forward is whether people should live so close to this dynamic system and if they do, what level of support can they reasonably expect?”

Some may assume that after Kilauea’s impressive display there will be time to reflect on how to best protect residents from future eruptions—where to site new roads and build new homes.

But Houghton offers caution. “Perhaps a key message is that we may not have decades of quiet and to remember that the previous two eruptions on the lower East Rift Zone were only five years apart, in 1955 and 1960.”

Mount Ruapehu volcano, New Zealand; 2016

Through a new three-year project Houghton in partnership with scientists at the USGS HVO, will continue to improve understanding of explosive eruptions in Hawai‘i and Italy and the ability to accurately assess and communicate volcanic hazards at two of the world’s most popular volcanoes and beyond.                   

Houghton, who joined UH Mānoa in 2000, has made impressive contributions, not only in Hawai‘i but also internationally, in the field of volcanology and volcanic hazards. He has worked in Alaska, Chile, El Salvador, Germany, Greece, Hawai‘i, Iceland, Italy, New Zealand, Nicaragua and Thailand.

To gain insight into what goes on beneath the surface of explosive eruptions, Houghton uses real-time high-speed imagery to record and then to model the dynamics of volcanic explosions. To take that understanding a step further, Houghton has pioneered cross-disciplinary research across the interface of volcanology, and social and behavioral science, leading to a world-first advanced training course for scientists, first responders and emergency managers, titled the U.S. FEMA Volcanic Crisis Awareness course.

“A giant of volcanology, Bruce has tackled ‘big’ problems in geology with innovative approaches and technologies, and is truly a scientist of outstanding distinction,” stated Rebecca Carey, a scientist at the University of Tasmania, in her letter nominating Houghton for the Thorarinsson Medal awarded by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI).

In 2017, Houghton received the medal, the highest award in international volcanology, for outstanding contributions to the scientific field of study.  Houghton, along with the previous UH Mānoa Macdonald Professor of Volcanology, George Walker, share “rarified air”  for being among the only nine volcanologists to-date honored with the Thorarinsson Medal, named after the noted Icelandic geologist and volcanologist Sigurdur Thorarinsson.

More accolades were bestowed upon Houghton the following year, as he was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a distinction reserved for no more than 0.1 percent of the union members, whose visionary leadership and scientific excellence have fundamentally advanced research in their respective fields.  “Throughout history, humans have lived with the threats and benefits (e.g., fertile soils) of active volcanoes,” said SOEST Dean Brian Taylor. “Bruce’s insights into volcanic processes and eruption dynamics are helping folks make informed decisions given the associated risks.”