Friday, February 26, 2016

Hawaii 2016


It is my pleasure to relate yet another crazy weekend, in which I did Hawaii wrong. I spent three days running around razor sharp lava flows in sandals, and didn't even draw blood. Of course, I did not go to the beach.

Also, in case it's not entirely obvious, I do not recommend following my example in all respects. I take calculated risks and take full responsibility for the silly things I do or do not describe myself doing, possibly in an alternate reality. 

Friday afternoon

I picked up my pack and made it to the airport. My Uber driver was a French/Algerian software engineer, and I spent a lot of the flight reading or writing. The landing was particularly rough in Hilo, after which the stewardess said "Ladies and gentlemen, United is pleased to report we have most definitely arrived in Hawaii," and the captain said "The island was at a lower altitude than it at first seemed. Thank you for flying with us today."

I picked up a bright red Hyundai rental (goes extra fast) and, at about 9:30pm, headed south towards Volcano. On the way I picked up two local kids heading home and got some good information about the proliferation of violent crime on the island - mostly smoke without fire, at least calibrated on a scale of zero to Los Angeles. C was on the phone from Antarctica, and was pleased to report the local temperature (-58C with windchill), to the complete shock and horror of my small town passengers.

At length I made it to my destination, where I met E and C, two volcanologist researchers, with whose evil ways I was to fall in. C has a robot for exploring volcanoes, and it uses an IR depth sensor to map the shapes of various fissures and vents. Unfortunately it doesn't work well in direct sunlight, so E and C went out at night to map the openings of the vents. A late dinner was procured, hardware was fixed, and sleep was had.


Early start and drove into the national park to find a suitable crack. The robot has controllable wheels to help it drive past obstructions that would ordinarily stop a plumb bob, and we quickly set up the gear. Unfortunately, a series of technical issues and one false start led to a complete breakdown, so after some more surveying and baking in the sun, we schlepped all the gear back to the 1998 just-barely-working budget rental car and headed to the art gallery. Moods improved rapidly.

Later, C and I debugged the whatsits out of the robot, isolating and fixing the problem, before reassembling the chassis with all the cables in the right place. Not long after that K showed up, at which point things got slightly off the wall. Later that afternoon we convoyed into town, dropped E at the airport, collected A, went shopping, found J at the airport, bought some icecream, and headed back to Volcano.


On Sunday we headed to the primary research site. We set up a tent, measurement line, potential test locations, and got busy with the robot. Nearly all the electronics systems worked, and we took good data (apparently) for the morning. K, A, and J got nice and sunburnt, while I sweated inside my long pants and sleeves. At this test site, the eruption began in 1969 as a series of big fissures, some of which became eruptive. After about a day, eruptions focused about 4km further north, and subsequent lava flows failed to bury the entire initial rift, which is still open. Earlier plumb bobbing revealed its depth to be >100m at some places, not bad for fissures only just big enough to fall into. I thought it would be possible to climb, though extremely rough. So, we send the robot instead, often to its full tether length of 27m.  

Around lunch, an astrobiologist called P showed up. P was full of all kinds of stories, so C gave her a tour of the various vents, including one that seems big enough to rappel into. After P left we dropped four more holes, then packed up and left. K managed to lock himself out of his car, so we piled into the remaining vehicle and went back for dinner. J and I prepared a dinner of spaghetti squash, beans, and lemon/avocado/basil/secret sauce. 

K and I headed back to the park to meet the AAA guy who deftly broke into the car, and after a quick look from Jaggar museum, K headed back while I lingered in the park. A beautiful full moon, clear night, and almost perfect silence, so I drove around, took a bunch of photos, and then headed back in time to sleep.


Monday morning we went to the weekly eruption update at the volcano observatory, which was cool. One presentation focused on helping out Make-A-Wish kids who want to be/see volcanologists. The pros headed for the test site and I drove south to the Great Crack. The 2.5 mile trail was really overgrown and basically guesswork, but soon the sandaled warrior (that's me) made it onto the 1823 flow and thence along a barely marked road towards the National Park boundary. As I approached the fence, a chasm appeared before me. Approaching the edge, it became apparent that it was way, waaaay deeper than it at first seemed. In this place, perhaps 5m wide and 50m deep. Along its walls nested numerous birds, I later saw nene, an owl, and other more generic varieties. 

I walked up and down the crack for about a mile each way, but the whole thing stretches for dozens of miles in each direction. More amusingly, the system has parallel satellite cracks often obscured by the overlying pahoehoe clinker, with just occasional gaps revealing a yawning nothingness beneath. Soon enough I turned around and began the slog back up the hill, focusing on trail finding/keeping, and taking dozens of spiderwebs to the face.

The car, having not been stolen, took me back (past the 'warning, road cracks' sign) and down to Glenwood, where I caught up with an old couch surfer host (V) and his new pack of dogs, discussed solar power systems, water filtration, and how fast lava from Pu'u O'o was eating the jungle between the vent and his house. While I was there it began to pour with rain, so I headed back up to the test site, arriving just as the laptop battery died, and so we packed up and left.

A nice quiet afternoon, tweaking datasets and discussing science ideas for outer planet cryovolcanism. Two parallel pasta dinners were constructed, I packed, and then left for the airport. The drive through fog and rain was quick enough, so I took a quick turn of the waterfront at Hilo before dropping the car, taking a call from the extreme south, and boarding the plane for home.


I slept on the flight back, waking when we began to descend suddenly barely 3 hours into the flight. At times like these, one wonders how well one would float during the post-ditching pre-sharkbait phase. But it turns out we had a good tailwind and arrived ahead of schedule. I took an Uber (Armenian/Georgian/Russian mechanical engineer) to work, cleaned up a bit, and waited for the exhaustion to hit.

It's not every day you get to try a new thing, look in a new direction, or spend three days running around on an active volcano in wildly questionable footwear. Thank you to E, C, K, A, and J for letting me hang out and answering my incessant questions!

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