Central Texas captivated by Mauna Loa, BU volcanologist explains eruption’s significance

“It’s a big deal,” says Dr. Kenny Befus at Baylor
Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 12:11 AM CST
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Many Central Texans have been glued to their screens this week to see the eruption of Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world.

“Mauna Loa is special because it is the volcano of Hawaii, it’s the big one,” said Dr. Kenny Befus. “Everyone cares about Hawaii, everyone cares about Mauna Loa, and to see it erupt now for the first time since the early 80s...it’s a big deal.”

Befus is a volcanologist with degrees in Geology from Texas Christian University (undergraduate and masters), the University of Texas at Austin (doctorate), and Stanford University (post-doctorate).

Since 2015, he’s been an associate professor in the geosciences department at Baylor University.

“The plan for people is rarely to become a volcanologist, and it certainly wasn’t my plan either,” said Befus. “I’ve become one over the years, mostly through the shaping of professors and mentors who have told me ‘you’re good at this, why don’t you keep doing it.’”

Plan or not, Befus’ knowledge of volcanoes has become rock-solid over the last two decades, and when one of the volcanoes that helped mold him erupted Monday, it was a significant event.

“The day a new eruption starts is a day where every volcanologist stops and checks it out,” Befus told KWTX Tuesday. “It’s normal, but it’s also kind of spectacular and something we’ve all kind of been trained on, so to see the thing you’ve been trained on erupt is special.”

While the eruption is special, from a scientific standpoint, it’s pretty basic.

“It’s not a world-changer from a research perspective or changing how we think about how the world works, it’s a normal basaltic effusive eruption, and so what that means is that there’s a certain composition to the lava, a certain temperature of the lava that’s totally expected, totally appropriate for Hawaii,” said Befus. “Volcanoes erupt because of built up pressure below ground, the pressure is going to build up as a function of both gas and the magma itself: magma that’s existing there, new magma that’s joining, and then gas that’s joining into the system, and those things together will create an over-pressure that will drive the magna to the earth’s surface and will be erupted along these rifts.”

The lava continued to flow down Mauna Loa Tuesday as two new flows emerged.

Scientists at the United States Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are closely monitoring the situation and are deploying monitoring instruments on the volcano, according to USGS officials.

“This eruption is happening at the very top of the mountain in a way that’s somewhat predictable and incredibly well monitored by the United States Geological Survey,” said Befus. “They’re looking at the gas emissions, they’re looking at the ground deformation, they’re looking at the earthquake seismicity, and tracking how things are changing in real time.”

At this point, it’s a volcanic hazard—not a natural disaster, Befus says.

“The hazard is normal, it’s good, it’s a natural process which makes our planet interesting,” he said.

While interesting, and despite advanced technology to track them, volcanoes can also still be unpredictable.

Hawaii’s Governor Tuesday signed an emergency proclamation to activate resources and plans that could be needed down the line if the situation grows dire.

However, Befus says there doesn’t appear to be any immediate threat.

“The movement underground that I would say would be the most unpredictable: where will the fissure open up next,” said Befus. “It will open up, probably, downhill, and how far downhill would be the thing that would have people the most interested.”

This eruption is Mauna Loa’s 34th since recording began in 1843, according to USGS, and the last one was in 1984.

The people living on the island have trained their whole lives to handle this, says Befus.

“Because they’re living on the side of a volcano, they’re probably pretty confident in the system,” said Befus. “The locals know this and understand it, they’re being communicated with by the USGS in real time, I suspect they’re probably going about their normal life and not in fear-mode.”

Eruptions can last days to years, therefore, scientists say it’s too early to predict how long this one will last (the Mauna Loa eruption in 1984 lasted less than a month).

Nonetheless, from novices to experts like Befus, Mauna Loa has captured our attention.

“The thing that’s going to come out of this is just beautiful footage, spectacular teaching footage, news reel footage, not showing danger probably, certainly not at this point towards humanity or infrastructure, but showing how the volcano is torn open along these fissures and the lava is shooting out of it up to 100 meters into the air,” said Befus. “I personally hope it lasts a long time because I have tourist goals--and I want to see it.”