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Wednesday, September 17, 2008


My first research project at the University of Hawaii, funded by the National Science Foundation Research Applied to National Needs Program, was a laboratory/modeling activity for the Hawaii Geothermal Project. This effort occurred during the early to mid 70’s. I was part of the reservoir engineering team which evaluated the underground condition of the Puna Area on the Big Island of Hawaii, and we subsequently undertook an exploratory drilling program.

It made some sense for me to be involved because chemical engineers are sort of like petroleum engineers. We received guidance from Hank Ramey of the Stanford Petroleum Engineering Department, the world authority in the field.

My lab experiment had to do with building a steel tank on the first floor of Holmes Hall, where the College of Engineering is located, filling it with various types of sand/clay/carbonates/silicates, and simulating what might occur in the real world to produce geothermal reservoirs. I did no real work as such, but supervised the research and educational programs for two students who went on to gain graduate degrees on this subject matter. A third student, who I worked closely with at the well-site, Arthur Seki, went on to work at HNEI, then later became the renewable energy expert for Hawaiian Electric Company. The engineering lead for the project was Paul Yuen, an electrical engineer, who went on to become Dean of the College of Engineering and President of the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research. The three of us still golf on occasion.

I became quite familiar with various rift zones, and noticed, in particular, that Kilauea Volcano had a prominent southwest rift zone, beginning at Halemaumau Crater (where visitors congregate at the Volcano Observatory), and extending towards the town of Punaluu, where I met my wife, plus the East rift from Halemaumau to Cape Kumukahi, in the line where our well was to be located. Under extraordinary conditions, that section of the Big Island seemed to me to be more apt to fall into the ocean than the San Andreas Fault in California. If so, a major tsunami would strike a region in the direction of Central to South America. That was in 1974.

It occurred to me around that time, though, that if there were any kind of softening caused by the crisscrossing interfaces of historical Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa flows, somehow weakened by interstitial fluids and/or a’a lava (porous flows), that a bigger chunk of the Big Island from the Volcanoes National Park area cutting across north of Hilo town, from where Pearl comes, could fall in the northwest direction to affect the western states. I promptly forgot this thought as the energy crisis came and I was transformed into a solar energy researcher and renewable resources advocate. Thus, my subsequent forays into hydrogen, Congress and the ocean.

Nearly three decades later, after I retired from the University of Hawaii, I saw an article in the Honolulu Advertiser reporting on a silent earthquake, really a slippage, of the southern flank of Kilauea volcano, which was deemed to be a possible signal of danger. At 3 inches of movement one day in November of 2000, that was 400 times greater than the normal rate for 24 hours.

There has been speculation that suddenly rainy conditions can serve to lubricate underground conditions and also apply additional pressure force (the extra weight of the rain). It so happened that the slip occurred eight to ten days after a storm, which brought 36 inches of precipitation over three days on the south side of Kilauea.

My interest so piqued, I participated in the Second Tsunami Symposium, sponsored by The Tsunami Society in May of 2002 on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus, with the conference site located a two minute walk from my office, which was actually an improvement from my days as a director, provided to me when I retired, with free parking because of my emeritus status. Many of the authors of papers cited above were there, and I had a field day asking, sometimes, ridiculous questions. When you are retired, you gain a sense of boldness, at least with respect to maintaining any kind of reputation. I specifically mentioned to several of these experts that I was thinking about writing a docu-novel called Five Hours to Los Angeles, about how a section of the Big Island would fall into the sea, causing a 1000 foot tsunami to hit Los Angeles. They smiled, were generally kind, and offered suggestions:

o First, while a mega tsunami of 325 meters (1066 feet) hitting the island of Lanai has been suggested, laboratory models show that 100 meters appear to be the maximum possible height of a tsunami caused by a landslide at any significant distance (more than a 1000 miles, for example).

o If I wanted a truly large wave to hit the West Coast of the U.S., the Continental Shelf, to some degree, protects Los Angeles. However, there is an open and deep pathway from the Big Island to Seattle, only a slightly longer distance away. Los Angeles has been damaged too, too many times, certainly in films, but also in reality, while Seattle has managed to escape catastrophic disaster, so what about Six Hours to Seattle? Of course, the time factor represents how long a tsunami generated in Hawaii can reach Seattle—and, coincidentally, the time of an airline flight of that distance. Such is how titles and novels get made.

The more prominent slope failure hazard for Kilauea was to the SOUTHEAST, targeting South America. The 2005 Tsunami page of George Pararas-Carayannis also points in this direction. Plus, all scientific observations show that, unlike the Nuuanu Landslide, this Hilina Slump is indeed, only creeping, and rather carefully and slowly, from 2.5 to 4 inches per year. Thus, any cataclysmic drop seemed unlikely.

Anyway, I needed another Big Island soft spot pointing in the direction of the United States, and, more specifically, at Seattle, and my speculations from thirty years prior came to mind. Unfortunately, I, by then, had discarded fully 90% of the paperwork I once had. So to re-create a scenario, let’s see now, Oahu is about 15% the areal size of the Big Island, and the Nuuanu landslide was supposedly 3000 km3, about one third of the island, six times larger than the hypothetical La Palma version. It would be too much to then say that the landslide could be 20,000 km3 (4,000 cubic miles), so let us settle only for half that, or 10,000 cubic kilometers. The bathymetry is such that if this huge chunk sheared off, it could fall to 10,000 foot depths as close as 30 miles away, and just in the direction of Seattle.

There is a wide variety of processes by which landsides can occur. In fact, there are 23 ways such collapses take place. It was further reported that ocean islands are particularly susceptible to these failures leading to tsunamis, and volcanic edifices are especially prone. Some Hawaiian landslides were measured to be as long as 300 km (186 miles), among the largest recorded. While these mega events might occur every 25,000 to 100,000 years, there is general uncertainty on when the next one will come. Thus, such an episode could occur today, but most probably not. Plus, most tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean and Hawaii is where much of this past landsliding activity has occurred, so, why not focus on a possible mega-tsunami from this fair state?
Tropical Storm Sinlaku at 50 MPH is heading for Kyushu, and should bring considerable rain to Japan over the coming weekend. There is something brewing over the Mariana Islands.
Crude oil jumped to $97.45/bbl today while the DJI crashed 449 to 10,610.

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