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Fall/Winter 1999-2000

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Hawaii's "Coming Attraction"
by Lance Tominaga     

Installed in 1997, HUGO (Hawaii's Undersea Geo-Observatory) is an un-manned observatory positioned on Lo'ihi's summit. Scientists go down to Lo'ihi via Pisces V (pictured above) which accomodates three passengers. Thanks to HUGO for the use of the photographs included in this story.

As sci-fi fanatics geared up for the May release of The Phantom Menace, the next installment of George Lucas's Star Wars series, another blockbuster sequel rose quietly in waters off the Big Island.

While Jedi-geeks and Ewok-aholics had to wait 16 years for Menace, however, Hawai'i residents had to wait a little longer for Lo'ihi-perhaps, say, a thousand lifetimes!

Yes, a long, long time from now, in a place not too far away, Lo'ihi will break the ocean's surface and become the next Hawaiian island. Located 20 miles off the southeast coast of the Big Island, Lo'ihi (meaning "long, tall") is Hawai'i's youngest volcano, rising three miles from the ocean floor to approximately 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface. "Lo'ihi is certainly going to be the next Hawaiian island if it keeps growing, although we have no guarantee it will keep growing," says Fred Duennebier, University of Hawai'i-Manoa geology professor, and a leading scientist in Lo'ihi research. "If it does, it should break the surface in about 100,000 years. And then if it keeps growing after that, it will probably join the Big Island in another 50,000-100,000 years."

The monk fish, just one of the many bizare creatures evolving at Lo'ihi.

In other words, don't draw up any real estate plans for Lo'ihi just yet. Still, Lo'ihi has come a long way in a short time. It was only in 1955 that the seamount was discovered by noted geologist K.O. Emery. And it was only in the early 1980's that it was officially recognized as an active undersea volcano, rising from the same "hot spot" that birthed each of the Hawaiian islands.

Since then, Lo'ihi has made just enough noise to keep researchers guessing what will happen next. In the summer of 1996, for example, more than 4,000 earthquakes were recorded at the seamount, the most ever detected from any Hawaiian volcano. As a result, Lo'ihi had undergone a startling transformation: what had been known as "Pele's Vents"-a section where heated water bubbled up from Lo'ihi's summit-had crumbled, replaced by a gigantic crater (1,000 feet deep) now dubbed "Pele's Pit."

Although it will be centuries before Lo'ihi will literally see the light of day, the ongoing study of this "baby volcano" is already paying dividends. "Lo'ihi is a fascinating place," marvels Duennebier. "It's one of the few places in the world where a 'hot spot' is generating an underwater volcano that we can actually go and visit.

"Almost all of the other underwater volcanoes are along places where the crust of the earth is splitting apart-we call them 'spreading centers.' Lo'ihi, instead, is a 'hot spot' volcano, located where there's a lot of heat underneath the earth's crust. Occasionally, the heat breaks through, forming a volcano."

Through Lo'ihi, scientists learn what Kilauea volcano was like as an infant (some UH scientists have dubbed Lo'ihi a "miniature Kilauea"). In terms of specific discoveries, Duennebier offers a practical example: "One type of life form that we've found at Lo'ihi is a bacteria that exists in very high temperatures. This material is generating proteins and chemicals that are active and work very well at these temperatures. In fact, they work so well that they may be able to be used to make organic reactions that will enable people to make chemicals much faster than they can do now. While this isn't my field, I know there's a lot of work going on in this particular matter."

Then there is the question of whether Lo'ihi poses a threat to the Big Island and the rest of the island chain. "It's conceivable that Lo'ihi could have a large undersea landslide and cause a tsunami," says Bob Jordan, shore station manager based at Whittington Beach at Honu'apo, for the Hawai'i Undersea Geo Observatory (HUGO). "So we're trying to understand how the volcano is built, and what the chances are of it possibly having a large piece let go."

Duennebier doesn't foresee any danger. "It is a very steep volcano, and as it piles more and more lava on the top, it does get more unstable," he says. "And occasionally you will get these landslides. But the question is whether the landslide is really large enough to move enough water to cause a tsunami. That would really be the only danger, and my personal opinion is that Lo'ihi probably is not [a threat]."

Among the intriguing mysteries of Lo'ihi are the various life forms that thrive there. "Most of it is bacterial," says Duennebier. "We see layers of bacteria all over the place, forming a kind of orange-colored matter around a large part of the volcano. We're beginning to discover that most of the bacteria isn't living in the water or at the bottom; it's living below the bottom. And when Lo'ihi erupts, it literally blasts this material out of the vents. It's pretty spectacular stuff."

Duennebier adds that a lot of shrimp thrive at Lo'ihi, and "another thing we've seen that was really exciting; was a type of octopus, about four to six feet in diameter, that instead of suckers, had four-inch-long spikes. We have a beautiful video of that at the Waikiki Aquarium on O'ahu. When we saw it, it put on a very pretty display for us!"

Jordan describes another unusual sea creature, an off-white-colored angler, that exists at Lo'ihi: "One of the pictures usually show when I speak at schools is of this fish with four legs! It's really neat because you can see 'elbows,' and the fins can curl like 'fingers.' This fish sits on these four legs and actually holds onto the rocks. It has huge lips, big eyes, and looks like the face of some kind of animal."

Installed in October 1997, HUGO is an unmanned observatory positioned on Lo'ihi's summit. It helps scientists monitor activity on the volcano by collecting data from experiments connected to a junction box, which is roughly half the size of a car. With HUGO, scientists are able to monitor earthquakes, eruptions, and other activities. "What will really make HUGO work well is when other people-from college and high school students, to scientists from around the world-begin to place their own experiments in there," says Duennebier. "It will be a very easy thing to do. All you'll have to do is go down and plug it in."

Duennebier and his fellow researchers "go down" to Lo'ihi via Pisces V, a yellow mini-submarine that is just large enough to accommodate three passengers. Says Duennebier, who has visited Lo'ihi six times, "It is cold down there! You're in this sphere that's a little over six feet in diameter, and when you get down there the water temperature is about two or three degrees Centigrade. Not only that, but remember as you close the hatch you're in this very warm tropical air, and so when you descend down to the cold, it begins to get very wet; all the moisture in the air condenses like dew, and it almost seems like it's raining inside. So it can get pretty uncomfortable."

These deep-sea expeditions can be dangerous. Duennebier recalls one hair-raising account: "Once, we went down expecting to see the bottom about 300 feet below us, so we turned on our bottom-searching sonar. Everything was cluttered! We couldn't see a thing, and we didn't understand why. Then our pilot looked out the window and saw this vertical cliff going by us! He immediately slammed on the brakes. What had happened was we actually came down inside a crater that hadn't been previously mapped!" He laughs. "So that was pretty exciting!"

The research efforts would not be possible without the financial support of the National Science Foundation and from the private sectors. AT&T, for example, donated 30 miles of fiber optic cable (valued at $600,000) connecting HUGO and the Big Island. The cable allowed researchers to collect data from the approximately 90 separate experiments conducted through HUGO.

A Lo'ihi octopus, four to six feet in diameter and bearing four inch spikes.

Duennebier and Jordan both express hope that research on Lo'ihi will continue. Currently, however, all experiments are on hold because of a leak in the cable. "There's one single electrical wire that goes out to the volcano," says Jordan. "Somewhere, there's a small hole in the cable so the electrical conductor touches the ocean before it reaches the volcano. Every time we try to turn on the circuit breakers, they just blow out." The glass fibers, Jordan points out, are still intact. "We know this because we did a test. We plugged in a battery [into the junction box], and our experiments powered up for about eight-and-a-half hours until the battery died."

While futurists look toward the fateful day Lo'ihi finally joins its sister islands above the ocean's surface, this tem pestuous young volcano is still helping us learn about our past. Says Duennebier, "We have a lot to learn!"

Indeed. Why is Lo'ihi home to life forms different from what scientists see at a typical ridge crust? How did these sea creatures get there in the first place? Is it possible to accurately predict when the seamount will break the ocean's surface? And, above all, what's next for Lo'ihi?

As with any blockbuster sequel worth waiting for, the plot thickens.

"Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest."

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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