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Ten Years at the Top: Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s Scientist-in-Charge Steps Aside

February 27, 2015
20150226_VW_JimK in 2012

After serving as Scientist-in-Charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory for more than 10 years, Jim Kauahikaua, shown here at HVO’s Centennial Celebration in 2012, steps aside on March 8, 2015. Kauahikaua will remain on HVO’s staff as a research geophysicist, the position he originally held starting in 1988. USGS photo.


If Jim Kauahikaua had his way, you would not be reading this Volcano Watch article. That’s because he deeply dislikes being the center of attention. Nevertheless, we take this opportunity to acknowledge Jim before he steps aside as Scientist-in-Charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on March 8, 2015.

Jim, known for his iconic beard and ponytail, joined HVO’s staff as a geophysicist in 1988.  His research focused on magnetic, gravity, and electrical resistivity studies of Hawaiian volcanoes and techniques for assessing lava flow hazards and quantifying lava flow emplacement.

On October 3, 2004, Jim was named HVO’s 19th Scientist-in-Charge—the first of Hawaiian ancestry. When he steps aside, he will have served as lead scientist for more than 10 years—one of the longest terms in HVO’s history.

Since 2004, Jim has overseen substantial changes in HVO’s volcano and earthquake monitoring technologies and capabilities. A notable challenge successfully managed by Jim was HVO’s use of $3.1 million provided by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Many improvements were accomplished through that one-time boost in funding, but most importantly, HVO’s monitoring networks were expanded and made completely digital. Redundant telemetry paths were also added to ensure consistent and near-real-time connectivity between HVO and the more than 100 field-based monitoring instruments on Hawai‘i’s active volcanoes.

Scientist-in-Charge responsibilities include more than scientific achievement, and Jim certainly faced his share of difficult issues—reduced or uncertain budgets, the 2013 Federal government shut-down, and more. But his able leadership ensured that HVO’s operations and research progressed without interruption, even under the most challenging circumstances.

During the past 10 years, Jim coordinated HVO’s response to a number of significant volcanic and seismic events on the Island of Hawai‘i. These include the 2004-2005 Mauna Loa unrest, the 2006 destructive Kīholo Bay earthquake, and, on Kīlauea, the 2008 explosive opening of the summit vent within Halema‘uma‘u Crater and the 2011 Kamoamoa fissure eruption, in addition to the ongoing East Rift Zone (Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō) eruption. Jim’s expertise on lava flow emplacement and hazards served HVO well when Kīlauea lava re-entered Kalapana in 2010-2011, as well as when lava flowed northeast from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō toward Puna communities—first in 2007, then in 2013-2014 (Kahauale‘a flows), and again with today’s still-active June 27th flow.

Responding to natural hazards is often a multi-agency effort, and Jim strengthened existing relationships and forged new ones between HVO and other Federal, State, and County agencies. As Scientist-in-Charge, he worked closely with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, Hawai‘i State Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to support interagency cooperation and collaboration.

A notable milestone of Jim’s tenure as Scientist-in-Charge was HVO’s centennial celebration in 2012.  He guided plans for an HVO open house, attended by more than 1,400 Hawai‘i residents and visitors, and supported HVO staff involved in organizing an international gathering of volcanologists focused on the study of Hawaiian volcanoes and earthquakes. Jim also co-authored “The Story of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory—A Remarkable First 100 Years of Tracking Eruptions and Earthquakes” (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/135/) to commemorate HVO’s history.

Jim champions HVO’s outreach and communication efforts, often leading the charge to increase public awareness of Hawaiian volcanoes and earthquakes. He participates in community outreach events, writes numerous Volcano Watch articles each year, presents countless public talks, and personally answers many of the askHVO emails.

It’s impossible within the limits of this article to extol all that Jim accomplished as HVO’s Scientist-in-Charge. But, despite his aversion to the spotlight, we wish to recognize and express appreciation for Jim’s leadership over the past decade.

Tom Murray, Director of the USGS Volcano Science Center (and Jim’s boss), perhaps says it best: “HVO’s achievements under Jim’s leadership have been remarkable. Just responding daily to the eruption is a full-time task, but Jim has also accomplished many goals related to long-term improvements to HVO… and enhancing ties to the community. What’s best for the community, for HVO, and for the staff were his priorities. He’s been great to work with.”

Jim remains on HVO’s staff. His beard and ponytail have grayed, but his passion for studying Hawaiian volcanoes and earthquakes remains vibrant.  While he looks forward to passing the Scientist-in-Charge torch to his successor, he has no plans to slow down.  There’s research to conduct—and Jim is keen to get back to it.

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