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The images from the volcanic eruption on Hawaii's Big Island are both breathtaking and terrifying. Lava is gushing from cracks in the earth, blasting at times more than 200 feet in the air. For those living in the southeast corner of the Big Island, the eruption is devastating. It's also presenting an unusual opportunity for scientists. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Every day, night and minute since this major eruption started, scientists have been tracking its progress. Drones buzz over the rivers of lava, blinking red and green at night against the creamsicled glow on the rising smoke. Sensors and monitors record every earthquake and eruption, and teams of volcanologists are out on foot 24 hours a day, recording gas levels, lava speeds, fountain heights and whatever other data they can get. Unfortunately they don't let bumbling reporters join them in the field, but they will take a recorder.
(SOUNDBITE OF FROGS CROAKING)
ALEXA VAN EATON: We're here at the margin of the 'a'a flow advancing from fissures 7 and 21 towards the northwest.
ROTT: This is Dr. Alexa Van Eaton, a physical volcanologist who's usually stationed in Oregon at Cascades Volcano Observatory. She's standing less than a foot away from a lava flow, recording its speed and behavior. But what strikes her is the sound.
VAN EATON: You can hear, first of all, the coqui frogs in the background. You can hear the clinkering of the lava, which really does sound like breaking glass.
ROTT: That sound clinkering is actually a technical term. It's the barely audible sound and process of lava breaking.
VAN EATON: As a volcanologist, you learn about this term clinker. And for me, it hadn't really sunk in that that's what it actually sounds like. It's clinkering. It's onomatopoeia.
ROTT: This is Van Eaton later outside a crash pad of sorts where she and other volcanologists from all around the country are staying here on the Big Island. She is very, very excited about this opportunity, as are the others. As one scientist put it, eruptions like this are a window into the inner workings of our planet.
VAN EATON: This is a once-in-a-lifetime process to really be a part of.
ROTT: But the reality of what this volcano is doing to people, their homes and property is not lost on any of the scientists here. Brett Walker is a Ph.D. student from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The other night, she was out collecting lava samples.
BRETT WALKER: So as excited as I was to collect this fresh molten piece of lava, I was collecting it on the property of my friend's house, whose house was burning down. So it's just this complete mix of excitedness, happiness and sadness and devastation really.
ROTT: Wendy Stovall, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says all of the data they're collecting here will drive research for years. It's a generational event that will define the field like Mount St. Helens did in the '80s, helping scientists better understand how volcanoes work all over the world.
WENDY STOVALL: And that will hopefully inform land use planning, emergency preparedness and keep people's lives from being impacted so heavily like they have during this eruption.
ROTT: That's the reason Natalia Deligne has been watching the eruption on TV during her lunch breaks. She's a volcanic hazard and risk modeler in New Zealand. We talked over Skype.
NATALIA DELIGNE: Our largest city, Auckland, is built on top of a volcanic field. And so the hazards and the impacts we're observing in Kilauea - we can imagine it happening here.
ROTT: And she's not alone. Scientists across the globe are watching Kilauea - in Costa Rica, Japan, Iceland and others - hoping to learn and prepare for the next eruption. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Hilo, Hawaii.
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