Earlier this week the Mount Kīlauea volcano on Hawai’i’s Big Island erupted, sending lava pouring into residential areas and forcing evacuations. But before this recent volcanic activity drew worldwide fascination, several researchers all the way in Texas have been fixated on trying to learn about the type of gases coming out of Kīlauea.

Mark Spychala, an Associate Research Scientist at St. Edwards University in Austin, works on a team along with University of Houston scientists studying volcanoes with a five-year $255,000 Universities Space Research Association grant. 

“It was a little intimidating, I had never seen a volcano in person before,” Spychala explained of the work they did measuring gases at the volcano vent. 

They traveled to the Big Island in January and February 2018, looking to measure ozone and sulfur dioxide using a piece of equipment they created which goes on weather balloons. The equipment they designed is now able to do the job of measuring sulfur dioxide (a toxic gas which is released from volcanoes), which previously took two devices to do, Spychala explained to St. Edwards University. 

“It will deteriorate and oxidize fence lines, it’s much more volatile for human health, it will aggravate the respiratory system to where if you’re caught in a sulfur dioxide gas plume, you could die,” Spychala said. 

The team he was on trekked around the Kīlauea volcano, including around Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. Spychala explained that it’s too difficult for planes or satellites to get accurate measurements of the gases over volcanoes, which is why weather balloons are used. They compared their data to sensors already on Hawai’i and found that the weather balloon strategy worked. 

Looking at forecast maps of the sulfur dioxide emissions on the Big Island now, Spychala said that three months ago the emission levels looked nothing similar. 

He explained those sulfur dioxide emissions will impact communities living on the coast of the Big Island, threatening both human health and agriculture. Spychala worries that the development of a wind from the northeastern part of the island could shift those harmful gases to the air that people around Hilo are breathing. 

Spychala says NASA is interested in their research because it may help them understand the way sulfur dioxide impacts our atmosphere and climate change. He added when sulfur dioxide gets up into the stratosphere, it can have a mirroring effect, reflecting incoming radiation which may have the potential to shift global climate during a major eruption. 

The researchers have a patent pending for the device they made. They believe its low cost and accuracy can give other researchers the tools to find out more about the ways sulfur dioxide impacts our world. In the future, Spychala thinks this research could help give insight into the impact of gases at sites like Yellowstone National Park. 

Spychala’s research in Austin also works to measure ozone. He noted that Austin saw higher than normal levels of ozone this week and that he will keep launching weather balloons to find out where the ozone pollution over Austin is coming from. Ozone can also be harmful to people who are asthmatic, young, elderly or have respiratory issues, Spychala said.