VEPP: Volcanologist Pro Tem: Exploring the Dynamics of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii

Eric H. Christiansen

Geological Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602

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This is an exercise that is in development and has not yet been fully tested in the classroom. Please check back regularly for updates and changes.

This discovery activity puts students in the place of real volcanologists by giving them access to real-time data from Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii. They learn about volcano monitoring techniques, study case histories of important volcanic processes, and then form and test hypotheses for past and future volcanic events with multiple instruments and real-time data. As a result, students will understand the processes that shape a basaltic shield volcano.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this project is for students to learn that volcanoes are dynamic systems that change in size, shape, and eruptive behavior as magma enters and leaves. A variety of observations and field instruments are used to show this. Students should also discover that such changes help us understand a volcano's structure and predict changes in its eruption behavior.

In terms of higher order thinking skills, all students will have to synthesize and analyze real data acquired in different ways; they will have to evaluate which data are useful and reject data that are noisy or of low quality. Eventually, they will formulate hypotheses about what the data mean and evaluate their hypotheses in the light of other kinds of observations as they develop a conceptual model to help them understand the structure and eruptive behavior of basaltic volcanoes.

In addition to the concept goals, students will also develop their quantitative analysis skills, grapple with visualizing the structure of the Earth in three dimensions, practice working in small cooperative groups–collecting and analyzing data, synthesizing their meanings, and writing brief reports. Finally, they will also gain skill in making oral presentations and constructing PowerPoint files to accompany them.

Context for Use

What is the type of activity ?

Semester-long, multi-part project.

What is the class type?

Introductory physical geology class for majors with 25 to 50 students enrolled.

What is the type and level of course in which this activity or assignment could be used ?

Introductory course in physical geology, natural hazards, or volcanology. With some adaptation it could also be used in upper division courses.

What skills and concepts must students master before beginning the activity?

Before starting this exercise, students should have been introduced to igneous rocks and volcanoes, including different styles of eruption and the link between subsurface magma chambers and volcanic eruptions. A brief introduction to basaltic volcanism on Hawaii is also necessary. This should include basalt magmas (solid, liquid, and gas phases), magma chambers (dikes, sills), shield volcanoes, summit calderas, rift zones, and flank failures of volcanoes. Students are intended to develop a more in depth knowledge of these things as they work through the project, so these should be brief discussions. Introducing the project by watching parts of a video about Hawaii or about another active volcanic eruption (e.g., Pinatubo: In the path of a killer volcano). Ideally, they will be familiar with using the web to acquire and download images and other information.

Instruction should not include much about volcano monitoring tools. This is intended to be one of the discoveries made by students.

How is the activity situated in your course?

The project is designed as a series of weekly assignments running from the about fifth week of classes until the end of the course.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this semester long discovery activity:
1. Each student will be a temporary volcanologist--a specialist for a certain instrument. Instruments could include: seismometers, tiltmeters, GPS receivers, gravimiters, Web cameras, gas (SO2) analyzers, infrasound devices, etc.

2. Interdisciplinary teams will examine important volcanic event that shapes Kilaeua in the time period covered by data available from VEPP and compile instrumental data preceding and post-dating the event.

3. Each team will prepare a PowerPoint presentation for class summarizing the correlations between eruptive behavior, inferred intrusive (subsurface) events, and the instrumental record.

4. Each team will then spend a week monitoring the on-going activity and make a prediction for the subsequent week's activity in a "Monday Morning Meeting" like those conducted at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

To achieve the goals outlined above,

A.Assign each student to one of five distinct groups to learn about and become an expert in a volcano monitoring technique (GPS-global positioning systems, Tilt, Seismicity, Gravity, and Geology–from daily verbal updates, maps, and photographs). Tutorials for each of these volcano monitoring techniques or instruments are accessible at the VEPP website ( "Experts" learn about their instrumental technique and develop a summary (Worksheet 1) of the technique and how it is used to monitor an active volcano–Hawaii's Kilauea volcano.

B.Form several new teams with one technique expert in each interdisciplinary team. Each expert will teach his or her team about their expertise, focusing on the data acquired by their instrument and what it can reveal about the volcano's behavior.

Each team will then work with a specific "enlightening" event involving an important process that shapes basaltic shield volcanoes like Kilauea. These important events include:

  • 2005 Feb 5-14 Martin Luther King events-fountaining and cone construction
  • 2007 June Father's Day uprift intrusion and cone collapse
  • 2007 Jul 2-30 Harry Potter Event--dike injection and fissuring
  • 2010 Jan-Mar Inflation and deflation cycles superimposed on deflation
  • 2010 May-June Transition from long term deflation to inflation and filling of Puu Oo

... or other events of your choosing that have VEPP data.

Each group will cooperatively complete a worksheet (Worksheet 2) to describe the event and how it was expressed in data acquired by each instrument or monitoring specialty. The teams will explore data that applies to their event from the VEPP Web site Other data sources that will also be utilized include the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Web site, including the archived record of Kilauea daily updates, images, movies, and lava flow maps. Using these monitoring instruments, each team will formulate hypotheses about the volcano's behavior during the event.

A spokesperson for the group will report the results verbally to the entire class in a 5-minute, group-prepared PowerPoint presentation with images, videos, and graphs of the data and an interpretation of the cause of the of the instrumental signal. Each presentation will be followed by a discussion of the volcanic activity that actually occurred, the value of multiple independent datasets for geologic investigations, and the process of investigating volcanic activity.

C.Require each team develops a list of criteria (Worksheet 3) that could be used to predict an eminent volcanic event on a basaltic shield volcano.

D. For the last weeks of the semester, conduct a "Monday Morning Meeting" will be held to simulate the work of volcanologists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Each team is assigned to report to the class on a different week's activity at Puu Oo and then predict its activity for the coming week, giving evidence for the prediction (Worksheet 4). Their prediction will be tested when the next group gives their weekly report.

E.Summarize by tying the various threads together to understand basaltic volcanism in Hawaii and construct a model for the internal structure of a basaltic shield volcano.

F. Administer the "Concept Test" as part of the final exam for the course.

Download the student worksheets for this course as a single pdf file. Volcanologist Pro Tem Worksheets (Acrobat (PDF) 588kB Jul31 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Please describe any helpful examples of this activity, as well as any potential variations on this theme:

This exercise could be used in other classes, including upper division courses. To make it shorter, the Monday Morning Meetings slated for the last five weeks of the semester could be eliminated.

What tips might you offer to other educators planning to use this activity?

To use this successfully, you will need to devote a lot of class time to the activity. It will require giving up discussions of other topics.


Three worksheets will be completed by the students and graded. A group presentation will be evaluated and assigned using a rubric. The activity/prediction group worksheet will be graded only for completion. In addition, students will be given a test on concepts and asked to:

1. Construct a graph showing how (a) the tilt of a volcano's flanks and (b) seismicity typically vary with time in response to a intrusion of a "slug" of new magma into a large basaltic shield volcano. Use correct units of measurement and label the time axis with appropriate numbers for Kilauea volcano.

2. Describe the three types of events that have shaped the volcanic system at Puu Oo, the currently active vent on Kilauea volcano, Hawaii

3. Draw a vertical cross section showing how magma moves through the Puu Oo volcanic system.

References and Resources

The Volcano Exploration Project (VEPP): (password required)

The Valve data interface for VEPP:

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:

USGS Volcano Observatory pages:

Earth's Dynamic Systems:

Physical geology textbook with chapters on igneous rocks and volcanoes (chapter 4), earthquakes (chapter 18), and hot spot volcanism (chapter 22)

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