Research on an active volcano

Photos courtesy of Abigail Nalesnik and Kendra Lynn

UD graduate student is spending the summer in Hawaii studying the Kīlauea volcano

In second grade, Abigail Nalesnik worked on a volcano project for school and said it sparked a lifelong love of volcanoes. However, as a student at Salisbury University living on the east coast of Maryland, Nalesnik wasn’t sure it would be possible to study volcanoes until she started applying to graduate schools and Jessica Warren’s Mantle Processes Group at the university of Delaware attended.

Coincidentally, Warren, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, had a postdoctoral researcher at the time named Kendra J. Lynn, who is now an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences. Warren and Lynn had received a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct geochemical research at Kīlauea, and by working with Lynn and Warren, Nalesnik was able to expand the original scope of this project and develop a research project related to the physical volcanology – the study of the processes and deposits of volcanic eruptions.

This physical volcanology work enabled Nalesnik to travel to the island of Hawaii and stay in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to study Kīlauea Volcano, the world’s most active volcanic system, in September 2021. In the summer of 2022, Nalesnik was able to return to Hawaii and continues her research.

Nalesnik will present the results of her research in two papers at the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior conference, taking place in New Zealand from Monday 30 January to Friday 3 February.

During the summer, Nalesnik worked in coordination with the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), which allowed her to continue her collaboration with Lynn, who now works as a research geologist at HVO, serving as a valuable resource and mentor to Nalesnik in the project.

The first time Nalesnik actually saw a volcano in person was during her field research in 2021.

“All I had been working on up to that point were these tiny grains that were being deposited by Kīlauea,” Nalesnik said. “Going up for the first time was amazing. My advisor told me some of the history and background and I just stood there for a second and it was a very emotional experience.”

Nalesnik’s work involves studying how volcanic tephra deposits – small boulders – fall around the volcano. In particular, she works on prehistoric explosive eruptions of the Kīlauea Volcano, which currently exhibits long-lived lava flows known as effusive eruptions, but has a history of periods of explosive and highly hazardous eruptions.

“These eruptions are orders of magnitude more powerful than any eruptions documented since the HVO’s inception or described after the arrival of western visitors in the late 18th century,” Nalesnik said. “These periods have hardly been studied and are still very poorly understood.”

Nalesnik’s research focuses on the geochemistry of tephra volcanic particles, fragments formed during a volcanic eruption that range in size from ash to material more than a meter in size. Using laboratory equipment at UD, Nalesnik collects the trace element concentrations and then uses models to determine what conditions led to the explosive eruptions.

“I also use physical volcanology to understand the intensity of the eruptions and what types of hazards we can expect for Hawaii today,” Nalesnik said. “An explosive eruption taking place today would have devastating effects on human health, livestock and agriculture, island economies and air travel.”

In 2021, she conducted research for a total of five weeks at five different field locations. She said looking at where a deposit is located can help determine everything from the size of a volcanic eruption to the direction the wind was moving when a particular piece of tephra was deposited.

“If you look at where the deposit is, not everything is preserved and deposited in the same way,” Nalesnik said. “We’re thinking about its likely source area and the eruption that spawned it, but also how the wind might have affected where the cloud spread material. We look at the color, thickness, grain size and composition of the deposit to understand what type of eruption caused it. The actual components can tell us whether it is made up of young volcanic material or the lithic bedrock.”

Nalesnik continued her work in the summer of 2022 studying the volcanic deposits, and since Kīlauea is an active volcano, she acknowledges that it can be a somewhat humbling experience. Last fall, two days before she left at the end of the field work, she witnessed an eruption of the Kīlauea volcano.

While working with a team of scientists from HVO, they received a warning of an earthquake swarm just below the volcano’s summit – which may indicate magma movement – and the team wanted to set up some sample containers in case the earthquake swarm meant there was an eruption would come.

“On the exit, I will never forget that white cloud coming out of Halema’uma’u Crater. I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s happening,'” Nalesnik said.

After completing all the required safety certifications with HVO, Nalesnik and the research team were able to grab gas masks, helmets and all their gear and head straight back to the national park to monitor the eruption.

“I wanted to see the fresh lava, but I knew collecting samples was important because the wind had already started blowing it away. So we carefully collected samples and then went over to the lava lake,” Nalesnik said. “I will never forget the smells and sounds. There was a strong smell of sulphur, that smell of rotten eggs, but the sound was like a very heavy fountain of water. You could see the molten material bubbling up in small fiery fountains all over the lava lake and it gave me a greater appreciation for the people who live in this area and also for the cultural importance that Kīlauea has. It was breathtaking.”

You can read more about their eruption experience in UD’s Research Magazine.

For this eruption, Nalesnik and the other scientists collected many pieces of tephra – which were cool and perfectly fine to the touch. These samples will be used to study the initial conditions and chemistry of the eruption. It taught Nalesnik the importance of respecting the power of volcanoes.

“The volcanoes in Hawaii are protected and it’s very important to respect the boundaries that the National Parks Service has put in place,” said Nalesnik, who noted that she’s seen videos in other places around the world of people just jumping right on an erupting volcano. “There are fences and borders erected to provide space away from volcanic hazards that pose significant threats to human health and safety. It can be very unfortunate when someone does not follow these rules.”

Regarding advice she would give to students interested in studying volcanoes, Nalesnik said there is a wealth of information available from geology courses, books and documentation to scientists on social media, where students can see what scientists do during their day-to-day routines.

Nalesnik also emphasized that it is important to understand how diverse volcanic research can be – from seismic activity to geochemistry – and that aspiring volcanologists should take as many geology courses as possible.

“The students who see the most stones win,” Nalesnik said. “They always have this larger pool of knowledge applicable to broad, sometimes complex, concepts that help them understand the broader realm of earth science and engage them in volcanic research.”