Rick Hazlett getting ready to helicopter

Professor Rick Hazlett prepped to board helicopter. 

Rick Hazlett got the call from the U.S. Geological Survey the first morning after Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano erupted: “Get your kit ready.” The Pomona College geology professor emeritus loaded up his backpack with his gas mask, cell phone and GPS, and soon enough he was ready for action.

Bob Tilling ’58

Bob Tilling ’58, former scientist-in-charge for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, sampling lava at Kilauea Volcano in 1973. (USGS Photo by R.L. Christiansen.) 

Hazlett has seen plenty of action since Hawaii’s Kīlauea had a major eruption on May 3, followed by a 6.9-magnitude earthquake that forced nearly 2,000 residents to evacuate from nearby communities.

Alternating between helicopter overflights and “boots on the ground,” his team, day after day, locates and reports back on new lava flows and venting. At times, that can be as simple – and eerie – as turning off the vehicle and listening for the telltale hissing and booms, “always being mindful of escape routes and looking over my shoulder.” They also collect samples of lava to take back to University of Hawaii, Hilo, so researchers can look at the lava’s chemistry, offering clues on what’s next.

Since he began studying volcanoes on the Big Island four decades ago – Hazlett literally wrote the book on “Roadside Geology of Hawaii” – he has never experienced anything like this.

It’s not just that lava is bursting to the surface in populated subdivisions, with all the safety concerns that brings. This time around, particularly earlier this month, fresher magma has been pushing out older, stored magma, leading to very explosive, pulsating releases of lava and gas.

“We’re seeing things happen that we haven’t seen before,” says Hazlett. “It’s hopscotching around the vent system.”

“I’ve had a lot of experience with eruptions at Kīlauea,’’ adds Hazlett. “But nothing quite like this.”

The extraordinary volcanic activity is bringing together Sagehen geologists on the scene.

Hannah Dietterich ’09, research geologist with the USGS stationed in Alaska, arrived a few days ago to help with the Kīlauea eruption response, including working on volcano hazard modeling, documenting locations of active eruption, and assessment and communication about lava flow hazards.

“There is the need for urgent information for emergency response and the devastation of the local community,” says Dietterich, also noting the scientific experience of seeing the eruptive processes she has long studied now unfold in dramatic fashion. “It is simultaneously stressful and exciting. Volcanoes capture the power of nature in all of its grandeur and destruction.”

A geology major at Pomona, Dietterich took the volcanology course with Hazlett (and they’ve already met up amid their volcano duties this week). Her fascination deepened with Pomona geology class field trips to nearby volcanoes in California and a summer research job in volcanology at Oregon State University. 

After Pomona, she started a Ph.D. at University of Oregon followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the USGS California Volcano Observatory. “I could not have asked for a better undergraduate experience to prepare me for my eventual career,” she says.

Hazlett, meanwhile, is also in contact with Jim Kauahikaua ’73, staff geophysicist at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Among other duties, Kauahikaua is serving as the liaison between the observatory and county civil defense, getting information from scientists to local authorities who can call for evacuations. The other day, “I stepped off the helicopter and Jim sent a message: ‘call me at once,’” says Hazlett.

It’s “an extremely important role,” adds Hazlett, who notes Kauahikaua’s experience and connections in the community. In 2015, Kauahikaua was honored with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Meritorious Service Award.

Widely quoted in the media, Kauahikaua told reporters this week about the unusual blue flames of methane gas burning through cracks as the eruptions continue. “It’s very dramatic. It’s very eerie,” Kauahikaua said.

Kauahikaua also handles press briefings as part of his long days. “He’s a true scientist,” says his wife, Jeri Gertz. “He just really cares about understanding what’s happening and being clear about explaining it.”

“If you can’t reach him,” adds Hazlett. “It’s because he’s on the front line.”

In an interview with Oregon State University, Kauahikaua said he always wanted to be a scientist in Hawaii, and he told PBS Hawaii that for a time during his childhood he collected rocks, but he says he didn’t decide on geology until college.

“My high school only offered physics, biology and chemistry, and I started college thinking I wanted to be an oceanographer,” he said in his OSU interview. “The college required a year each of physics, biology, chemistry and geology before taking any oceanography courses. I took geology first and liked it so well that I switched majors immediately.”

From 2004 to 2015, Kauahikaua served as scientist-in-charge for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and was the third Pomona alumnus to serve in that role. Bob Tilling ’58 held the role in 1975-76, and Tom Wright ’57 served from 1984 to 1991.

With both Sagehens working for USGS after Pomona, Wright had introduced classmate Tilling to the observatory in the mid-’60s and years later Tilling came to work there.

Tilling and Hazlett met during the ’70s, while the future professor was working as an intern at the volcano observatory. Years later, after Hazlett earned his Ph.D. at USC, he contacted Tilling after hearing about a faculty opening at Pomona. “I said, Rick, go for it,” Tilling recalls. As Hazlett puts it, “He convinced me to come teach at Pomona.”

Hazlett was at Pomona from 1987 to 2015, a four-time winner of the Wig Distinguished Professor award for excellence in teaching before moving to Hawaii to pursue volcano research. He had long-held ties to the Big Island. The irony of his latest call to duty hasn’t escaped him. “I expected a bucolic retirement that I would be struggling to keep from becoming dull,” he says. “This … is my crowded moment, and I didn’t see it coming.”

Hazlett goes on to note the importance of the next generation of geologists. And he may get a chance to meet them in the near future.

As the events unfolded in Hawaii earlier this month, students in Pomona Geology Professor Eric Grosfils’ volcanology class were working on their final, drawing on historical accounts and modern data to interpret a devastating 1790 eruption of Kilauea. With the latest eruption of that same volcano, “there’s no question it made an impact on the group that just finished the exam.”

Grosfils teaches the class again next spring and he plans to weave lessons from today’s unfolding events into his curriculum. The Geology Department and college fundraisers also are working on a plan that would allow students to travel to Hawaii, where they can get a firsthand look at the eruption’s aftermath and study many other volcanic features. This would give students a regular chance to move beyond “blackboards and rocks & boxes” to “see people doing career-type work in the field,” says Geology Department Chair and Professor Jade Star Lackey, with Grosfils adding, “Hawaii gives us opportunities that we can’t really find here.”