- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

HILO, Hawaii (AP) - For some, getting up-close-and-personal with a swollen, boiling lake of lava might sound terrifying, even nightmarish. For 37-year-old Matt Patrick, it’s a dream come true.

“It’s a great privilege to be able to work here and be able to get out to these eruption sites and have direct views, and be a part of the monitoring effort,” he said.

The Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Tuesday that as a research geologist at U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Patrick’s days are often determined by activity on the world’s most active volcanos. If things are quiet, he can be found at his desk, doing reports and what he called “normal office work.”

But during times of heightened activity - as has been the case for two weeks, since the lava lake inside Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea’s summit began to rise - HVO jumps into response mode, and its team of geologists head into the field to install and monitor cameras, measure changes in lava and other work few people get to take part in.

And for good reason: It can be dangerous and unpredictable.

For this particular event, which has seen the lava lake rise to its highest recorded level and spill out onto Halemaumau’s floor, geologists have been driving out to the closed Halemaumau Overlook parking lot, working from the crater rim directly above the lake. They go armed with hard hats, to protect themselves in case of an explosive event, gas masks, because of the high levels of sulfur dioxide, and special clothing.

“As we saw over the past week, there have been explosive events,” Patrick said. “So we really have to keep our eyes open and minimize our time down there.”

For the general public, there are two main ways to view the action - in person from Jaggar Museum and via webcams on HVO’s website. While the cameras offer a glimpse, Patrick said they do little to provide a sense of scale.

“The lava lake is enormous,” he said. “It’s the second-largest lava lake on Earth right now, second only to (Mount) Nyiragongo in Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Kilauea’s is the length of two football fields, and covers 8 acres of Halemaumau’s floor.

“It’s a lot of lava, obviously throws up a lot of heat. So when you’re standing on the rim, it’s not uncomfortably hot, but it’s close,” Patrick said.

And then there’s the noise.

The volcanic event makes a lot of sound. There’s the steady rush of gases, which Patrick said sounds like surf. There’s the spattering of lava, more like a jetting or pounding sound. And then there are the erratic “booming” noises related to rockfalls and the sounds of rocks heating up, similar to popcorn popping, he said.

Interestingly, Hawaii geologists have seen this pattern of rising lava levels, summit inflation and increased earthquake activity before. What it means, Patrick said, is the volcano is pressurizing.

As for what to expect next, that’s anyone’s guess.

“In the past, that’s led to a number of different things,” Patrick said. “It’s resulted in eruptive events, like this Kamoamoa eruption (in 2011), but it’s also led to intrusions, more benign events . where magma doesn’t make it to the surface, it just kind of intrudes into the interior of the volcano and doesn’t create a new vent.”

Patrick called it a “state of unrest,” and said it’s important for geologists to keep a close eye on what’s happening.

In addition to installing and maintaining camera equipment on the ground, HVO has been conducting helicopter flyovers to create map mosaics, as well as using laser rangefinders to measure the height of the lava column.

Late last week, the lava lake was perched almost 23 feet above the original crater floor. By Sunday afternoon, however, the level had dropped to about 33 feet below the rim of Overlook crater.

The overflows, not counting the 8-acre lava lake itself, total about 28 acres, or 21 percent of Halemaumau Crater’s 138-acre floor, according to HVO.

Patrick said there’s no denying it is a special time for Hawaii and the people here. Prior to this event, the lake was below the crater floor and not visible to the general public.

“We could access the closed area and observe it, and I would say we appreciated that it’s a spectacular sight, and we post photos and videos to try to convey that. But obviously the photos and video can’t give you everything,” Patrick said. “It’s a special time now that the lava lake is at the rim and visible from Jaggar (Museum) so everyone can see it, and families can go and safely watch it. I think that’s really special, and it’s great that everyone can now witness that.”

Patrick considers himself lucky, both to witness the action and be part of a team that contributes to the community by providing hazard assessment.

“I think that working at HVO is a dream job for anyone studying volcanoes,” he said. “Besides being witness to all the fascinating activity, one of the things that really attracted me to working here was the opportunity to gain a unique level of understanding of volcanoes by being in the middle of it all, rather than trying to understand it from afar.”

Patrick, a native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., moved to Hawaii in 2002 to pursue doctoral work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His research focused on using thermal imagery to study small-scale explosive volcanic eruptions, according to his biography on the USGS website.

As a researcher at Michigan Technological University, he focused on remote sensing of the volcanoes of Central America, which included trips to study volcanoes in Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador. He returned to Hawaii in 2007 to begin working for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

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Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, https://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/

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