JASON VI: Island Earth

Specific Fields of Research


The research fields in this section will be volcanology, planetology, and chemistry, all of which can help explain the role of volcanoes in the formation and continuing change of planets. The research areas includes the extensive Hawaiian Island chain, with greater emphasis on the Big Island, including the inactive volcanoes Mauna Kea and Kohala and the three active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea and Hualalai. Also on this island is NASA's infrared telescope facility, operated by the Institute of Astronomy, University of Hawaii. This telescope spends part of its time viewing other volcanoes in our solar system including Olympus Mons on Mars (the largest volcano in the solar system), Ra Patera on Jupiter's moon Io, and other including those on Earth's own moon. Dr. John Spencer form Lowell University and his colleagues will address specific questions about volcanism elsewhere in our solar system particularly on Io including its relationship with Jupiter.

At the center of this living laboratory is a team of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaii Volcano Observatory. They study the largest active shield volcano Mauna Loa; Mauna Kea, a volcano in the capping stage; and the currently erupting Kilauea volcano, including its rift zones, mobile south flank, older lava flows that have created microhabitats both above and below ground, and the current plumbing system consisting the conduits, dikes, and lava tubs of the Kilauea volcano, home of the Pele, the fire goddess.

Pele's powerful force has created the Puu Oo cone, located on the east rift of Kilauea. This large structure (now approximately 255 m high and continuing to grow) formed from 1983-1986. Since 1986 there has been a lava lake within the cone. The current eruption has been documented at more than the 53 episodes over the last 11 years. The most recent episodes involve two vents located at the base of Puu Oo underground lava tubes. These tubes move down the cliff to the sea near the Kamoamoa delta. Skylights, openings in the ceiling of the active lava tubes, can often be seen on the pali. Here the lava reaches temperatures of 1150 degrees centigrade and is seen as it quickly moves through the tubes towards the ocean. The tubes enter the ocean at or just below sea level producing pillow lava as well as underwater lava flows and explosive hydrogen gas-first seen by geochemists, Dr. Frank Sansone and Joe Resing from the University of Hawaii in 1989. Here, volatile gases, water temperatures of 70 degrees centigrade and constant explosions throwing pieces of volcanic glass create conditions extremely hostile to life. During the JASON Project these scientists will continue their research at the ocean-lava interface. Their work complements current research by the U.S.. Geological Survey, including a study of small explosive eruptions at the ocean entrance and reactions with volcanic volatiles in the atmosphere. Dr. Steve Mattox, a geologist, will begin his studies on glass particles carried into the rising steam plume above the ocean-lava interface. Additional topics are of interest to geologists such as, How long does magma stay inside the chamber before a volcano erupts, and, Why does the south flank move as it does, and, What is the nature of hotspots?

The spirit of Pele is both creative and destructive. She destroys reef and forests yet creates new land and habitats. The creation of land near Kamoamoa occurs through the active lava flows, which produce lava deltas. At the active front of the delta, unstable benches can break off and drop into the ocean.

Off the coast of the Big Island are a number of seamounts, one of which, Loihi, has been identified as the next Hawaiian island. Loihi demonstrates the dynamic quality of Hawaiian island succession, which is reflected in Hawaiian mythology. According to myth, Pele originally lived in Kauai, and then moved through the chain to her present abode. Kilauea caldera is at the summit of the volcano. The volcano observatory (U.S. Geologic Survey) sits on the edge of this caldera and views the gas plumes and yellow sulfur precipitate from within the Halemaumau crater. To the east of the Kilauea caldera lies the small crater of Kilauea Iki (small Kilauea), a dense center of life which formed approximately 300 years ago. On the rim of the crater is Puu Puai, a cinder cone that formed as a result of 600 m lava fountains in 1959.

Engineering Sciences:

The research fields in this section will be robotics and communications engineering. Key research questions for robotic engineers involve limitations regarding controlling a robot with a large sequential time delay. Current plans include testing a vehicle designed for research on surfaces of other bodies in our solar system and defining the level of autonomy required for different distances from the Earth. Communications engineering research also involves dealing with large time delays in the field of electronic communications. Mike Durbin, a communications engineer with EDS Corporation, will be the key investigator for this area.

Life Sciences:

Researchers here observe Hawaii and its inhabitants closely to gain a better understanding of colonization and the founder effect, adaptation, and biogeography. Scientists often document "island sweepstakes", a term describing how a flow and fauna arrives on the islands.

The research fields in this sections will be ecology and biology. The object will be to increase our understanding of ecosystems, island communities, microhabitats, niches, and interactions among them. Key questions will include how individuals come to a new place, and adapt to different niches, creating new species or variations of the original life form. These questions all relate to the larger questions of "how living things adapt to survive in new locations and how this relates to life, as we know it, on other planets". Researchers include Dr. Rosemarie Gillespie and Dr. Ken Kaneshiro from the University of Hawaii and Dr. Cheryl Tarr from the University of Pennsylvania and the National Zoo.

The central theme is adaptation. As life-forms come to new islands, they encounter both opportunities (in unfilled niches) and limitations including available food and partners. Thus, a premium is placed on adaptive strategies. Adaptive strategies can include acquiring or losing a specific behavior, morphological character or genetic feature. Pressure placed on life forms to adapt is related to the level of adaptation. Pacific volcanic islands offer greater ranged of isolated environments than most landscapes because of their microclimates, volcanic activity and steep eroded volcanic ridges, all of which isolate local populations and encourage specialization. These isolates have nurtured such unique creatures as carnivorous caterpillars, lava crickets, happyface spiders, courting Pomace flies and leaf hoppers, alpine Weiku bugs, blind hunting spiders, Tetranathid spiders which developed claws to impale their prey and honeycreeper birds.

The principle of adaptation of life to local conditions is illustrated best by the arthropods as well as the by the honeycreepers. The arthropods have adapted specific behaviors including vocalizations and morphological features which have become more specialized on the older islands of the chain and in the most adverse environments. The family of honeycreeper songbirds, known as Hawaii's answer to the finches of the Galapagos observed by Darwin, have developed a lock-and-key symmetry of beaks to various blossoms, fruits, seeds, and insects. New pressures placed upon them by "exotic" species has created a second wave of adaptations including immunity to avian malaria.

Adaptation as a fundamental aspect of biology is also visible in the process of colonization of disturbed environments, including marine habitats as well as those on land. The Ohi-Lehua tree slowly transforms barren lava fields into fertile land, and also is a participant in the "island sweepstakes" dissemination of life forms to new islands. Given the extreme isolation of Hawaii, plants with unusual dissemination adaptations were probably the first to become established, perhaps accounting for the abundance of ferns. Adaptation of species to local conditions leads to differentiation to fill the available niches, creating endemic organisms. Hawaii has the highest percentage of endemism at both the species and genus level of any area in the world.

Theories about the origins of life, and about the possible influence of hydrothermal vents and volcanoes, illustrate the wide range of adaptation that life can exhibit. The chemistry of the Earth's atmosphere, created by volcanism, was transformed to its current oxygen-rich mix by the first known life form, cyanobacteria. Anaerobic life was highly successful but inadequately adaptive. The result was the proliferation of aerobic life forms. Adaptation, offers an object lesson to scientists searching for signs of life on other planets. The recent discovery of novel species of arthropods inside relatively recently formed lava tubes suggests that our knowledge of habitable environments whether on Earth or on other planets is still not complete.

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Gene Carl Feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Todd Carlo Viola, JASON Foundation for Education (todd@jason.org)