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March 21, 1997

A weekly feature provided by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.


Thomas Jaggar, HVO's founder


Dr. Thomas L . Wright, HVO's Scientist-in-Charge from 1984 to 1991, returned to the Big Island for a short visit last week to conduct studies of the fault systems cutting Kilauea's south flank. As a scientist, Wright is best known for his pivotal research on the geochemistry of Hawaiian lava.

But Wright wears another hat on occasion--that of a science historian, an astute chronicler of the people and discoveries that have shaped our understanding of Hawaiian volcanism. In the book Hawai'i Volcano Watch (University of Hawaii Press ©1992) Wright and collaborators Taeko Jane Takahashi and J.D. Griggs trace 200 years of volcanology.

Last Tuesday, in a crowded auditorium in Hawaii National Park, Wright recounted a portion of this history in honor of Thomas A. Jaggar (1871 to 1953), the founder and first Director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Jaggar was born in Pennsylvania in 1871, the son of an Episcopal Bishop. A childhood fascination with the natural world eventually translated into a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University in 1897. His years as a graduate student and young professor were spent in the laboratory. He felt strongly that experimentation was the key to understanding earth science. Jaggar constructed water flumes bedded by sand and gravel in order to understand stream erosion and melted rocks in furnaces to study the behavior of magmas.

As he matured as a scientist, he began to feel the increasing need for field experimentation. Jaggar wrote at this time, `Whereas small scale experiments in the laboratory helped me to think about the details of nature...there remained the need to measure nature itself.' Thus Jaggar began a decade-long period of exploration to witness and analyze first-hand natural geologic processes.

His expedition to the West Indies in 1902 was a critical juncture in the scientist's career. On May 8 the news reached Jaggar that Mt. Soufriere (St. Vincent) had erupted, killing 1,500 people. A second eruption occurred a few hours later at neighboring Mt. Pelee (Martinique), resulting in a staggering 28,000 deaths. With the help of the U.S. Navy and the National Geographic Society, Jaggar landed on the steaming shores of Martinique some 13 days after the disaster.

In his autobiography published in 1956, Jaggar recounts, `It was hard to distinguish where the streets had been. Everything was buried under fallen walls of cobblestone and pink plaster and tiles, including 20,000 bodies....As I look back on the Martinique experience I know what a crucial point in my life it was....I realized that the killing of thousands of persons by subterranean machinery totally unknown to geologists...was worthy of a life work.'

The next 10 years of Jaggar's life brought expeditions to the scenes of great earthquakes and eruptions in Italy, the Aleutians, Central America, and Japan. With each trip, Jaggar became increasingly concerned that his field studies were but brief, inadequate snapshots of long-term, dynamic, earth processes. In 1908, an earthquake killed 125,000 people near Mt. Etna in Italy. With this disaster, Jaggar declared that `something must be done' to support systematic, ongoing studies of volcanic and seismic activity. He traveled to Hawaii in 1909 at his own expense, determined that Kilauea was to be the home of the first `American volcano observatory.'

After a lecture on his Martinique expedition in Honolulu, Jaggar was approached by the Honorable L.A. Thurston of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. Thurston, like Jaggar, believed that Kilauea was a prime site for a permanent volcano observatory and inquired of Jaggar, `Is it then a question of money?' Within a year of this conversation, the Hawaii Volcano Research Association was formed, with financial backing from Honolulu businessmen. A small observing station was set up on the rim of Halema`uma`u. In 1912, support was forthcoming from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and construction of the new Hawaiian Volcano Observatory began.

During his early years as Director, Jaggar struggled after private endowments with the hope of eventually securing sponsorship by the Federal Government. In 1919, Jaggar convinced the National Weather Service to adopt HVO. The U.S. Geological Survey took over its operation in 1924, with the exception of a brief hiatus during the Depression, when HVO was run by the National Park Service.

Jaggar remained Director of HVO until 1940. Over the course of 28 years, Jaggar never lost sight of his original vision that `the main object of the work should be humanitarian...prediction and methods of protecting life and property on the basis of sound scientific achievement.'

To quote the concluding words of Dr. Wright's talk last Tuesday, `Hopefully we [scientists] have been and will continue to be faithful to the message that Jaggar presented to us almost one hundred years ago.'


Eruption Update: 19 March 1997

Kilauea's east rift zone eruptive activity is limited to a sustained lava pond within the Pu`u `O`o Crater. The level of the pond rose 70 meters during the past week. Many residents of the Big Island were awakened by a magnitude 4.4 earthquake at 4:19 a.m. on Sunday morning, March 16. The temblor was located 4 km south of Pu`u `O`o at a depth of 10 km. A shallow earthquake with a magnitude of 2.3 from the Kilauea summit region shook residents of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at 8:25 p.m. on Monday, March 17. A 30.5-km-deep earthquake located 5 km southwest of Pahala jolted residents of that area at 4:11 p.m. on Tuesday, March 18. The earthquake registered 3.0 on the Richter scale.


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