Production Journal: Nov. 10, 1994

Whenever you are planning a production you have to accept that some things can't be fully predicted; the weather, for instance. But more serious for us is that the ground itself is unstable and changing. We plan to have a Lava Crane, a remote-operated sampling device designed to take a piece of molten rock out of a hole in the top of a lava tube every ninety minutes. But where will that hole (called a skylight) be? The ones we see in January might be gone in February, and this device is not too portable. It has to be close enough and/or within line of sight so that we can communicate with it. (Getting the signal from, say, Liverpool, to Hawaii is not as hard as getting it the last few hundred meters.) We also cannot predict what shape the skylight might take. Some have a vertical drop, but others are very oblique. The answer is simply that we hope there will be a suitable site, but anything can happen.

Anything can happen. Words that keep every production planner awake nights. In this case "anything" could range from the volcano stopping its eruption to a violent catastrophic slump in the land that sets off a tsunami big enough to sweep all of us out to sea. Both are unlikely. That is very comforting. Less comforting is the fact that the scientists in Hawaii are a bit puzzled why there has not been a larger eruption; the signs suggest the volcano is primed for something quite dramatic. The field lacks consensus about what, how big, and certainly when.

The latest word from the lava flow is that it is presently on the surface; or it was a few days ago. That would make things even more exciting. We have been used to it being essentially underground, in lava tubes, seen through skylights and at the ocean where it pours out and builds a bench. Especially if there is a surface flow, the use of a helicopter for observation is even more crucial. Our helicopter is being outfitted with an infrared camera which both allows observation in the dark and lets us see beneath the surface to the hot subterranean lava tubes. We were a little jolted on the last scout mission, when Monica pointed the camera straight down and saw that the entire team was standing on top of a huge river of lava. Even the most "street smart" geologists cannot always tell where the rock is completely safe and where it just looks OK.

Observing from a helicopter has its own hazards, but these can be minimized by a skillful pilot. The biggest danger is clogging the engine with particulate matter from the volcano. This brings down a tourist-filled aircraft once in a while, and has been implicated even in fouling engines of commercial jetliners which happen to pass through a stream of volcanic emissions from a big eruption. The dangers on the ground are more worrisome.

Precautions against dangers near a volcano are quite extensive, but one is very basic: no one should wear synthetic fiber clothing. If one is caught by some blast of heat, natural fibers will burn but not melt to the skin. Burn specialists attest that treatment of injuries with melted man-made fibers are a lot more difficult. We will all have respirators and depending on location people working on the project may have to wear specialized protective gear. But mostly it is boots, helmets, and a bright orange vest so someone can find you if there is a problem.

So, are we having fun yet?

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Gene Carl Feldman ( (301) 286-9428
Todd Carlo Viola, JASON Foundation for Education (