Christina Heliker received her Bachelor's Degree from the University of Montana and completed a Master's thesis on inclusions in the lava dome of Mt. Saint Helens. From 1980 to 1984, she worked as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascade Volcano Observatory. In 1984, she joined the crew at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Kilauea began erupting continuously on January 3, 1983. She is the only geologist to remain on site throughout the current eruption of Kilauea Volcano, making her one of the leading experts on this eruption.
Christina Heliker was interviewed by Tari Mattox on May 21, 1999, in her office at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). From 1989 through 1995, Christina and Tari worked together at HVO as part of a 3-woman Geology Team, a group responsible for mapping and monitoring the day-to-day activity of the eruptions in Hawaii.
Christina Heliker and cheetah in Namibia.
Photo by Carol Carpenter.
The first question is, how did you get started in volcanology? What interested you in volcanology?
Well, I was working for the U.S.G.S. in Tacoma, Washington at an office devoted to studying glaciers when Mt. St. Helens erupted in May 1980. Up until then, I had absolutely no idea that I ever wanted to be a volcanologist, but the eruption of Mt. St. Helens changed the course of a lot of people's lives, and I was one of them. I went down to St. Helens the weekend after the big eruption and volunteered to help. There was chaos after the eruption, and they needed people to answer phones in this makeshift office. Eventually, I moved down there and worked for the newly created Cascades Volcano Observatory part-time while I went to graduate school. Then I was transferred to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and I've been here ever since.
What was it about studying volcanoes that drew you to the field? Was there something specific that attracted you to it?
Seeing the area that had been devastated by Mount St. Helens and watching the lava dome grow in the crater over the next couple years was an amazing experience. I think any earth scientist who had the opportunity to be there was instantly converted to volcanology.
Yeah, they're pretty dynamic. Actually glaciers are too. Glaciers and volcanoes both.
Volcanoes are warmer.
Yeah, you like the idea that they're hot! Have you ever been scared or really worried while working on a volcano?
Sure! How many experiences do you want to hear about?
Oh, whichever one you think is best or a single one that stands out.
I can think of a couple. The first was at St. Helens. It was always a bit scary working in the crater in the early days, of course because we were worried about explosive eruptions. Sometimes we felt dozens of earthquakes in a single day which sort of keeps you on edge. And there were constant rockfalls off the crater walls and the lava dome. One day, I was collecting rocks on the talus slope at the base of the dome, and I looked up and there was this huge block that was balanced on the slope above me. I was just thinking how precarious it looked when it toppled towards me. It was the size of a UPS truck and was breaking apart as it crashed down, throwing out little bits of hot shrapnel that zinged past me. I turned and tore down the slope and dove behind another big rock for shelter. I've never run across talus that fast before or since.
How close did it come?
The block stopped on the slope above me, but there were lots of airborne fragments that shot past me.
What was the other experience?
Here's one from Hawaii, and it involved flying in a helicopter, which is one of the more dangerous things that volcanologists do.
Yeah, that's probably my scariest experience too!
Yeah, sometimes we fly in less than ideal circumstances. One time I remember, we were camped out by Pu`u `O`o and there was an eruption in progress. It was just before dusk and we wanted to map the flows one more time from the helicopter before dark. So I went out alone with the pilot, and when I finished mapping we tried to get back to camp, but the clouds had come in and they were so low we couldn't tell where we were. The pilot was trying to follow the flow back to camp, so he went beneath the clouds. We had clouds above us and an active `a`a flow below. We were only a couple hundred feet above the flow, and we were inching along sideways because he didn't want to run into the cone where the camp was. Yikes, that was such an eerie scene. It was almost dark, and we were sandwiched between an incandescent field of `a`a and this thick layer of clouds that were glowing orange from the reflected light of the lava. I was plenty relieved when the pilot decided to give it up and fly out to somewhere else.
Did you worry about flying into the fountain or was that not possible?
Well, the pilot had to look out for the falling tephra, but mainly he was just worried about flying into 1123 (the hill where volcanologists camped when monitoring Pu`u `O`o) because it was the biggest hill around, except for Pu`u `O`o.
What's the funniest thing that happened to you while working on a volcano? I know we've had a lot of funny times but there must be one that stands out!
Hmm, funny...well, a lot of things seem funnier in retrospect than they did when they were happening. I remember being caught in a cloud of steam and sulfur dioxide on the rim of Pu`u `O`o crater with another geologist. We couldn't see more than a few feet in front of us, and the fume was terrible, even wearing gas masks. We were stumbling around and arguing about which way we should go which is hard to do wearing a gas mask because it’s like trying to talk with someone’s hand across your mouth. Then I heard this muffled shriek from my partner, who had almost stepped off the rim into the crater. We finally found our way out of the whiteout, but if anyone could have seen us in our identical flight suits and gas masks feeling our way through a cloud of gas you would have thought it was a scene from The Three Stooges--except that there were only two of us, because you were somewhere else that day.
As you know, a lot of funny situations don't have to do with the volcano so much as the people in them.
Here's another one, kind-of along the same vein, what was the strangest experience you ever had? Has anything weird ever happened to you?
Well, it wasn't weird in the sense of being supernatural, but it was very strange at the time because I'd never seen anything like it. A high-fountaining episode at Pu`u `O`o had ended several hours before, and we were about to fly back to the observatory. Then we saw these cracks starting to open in the ground on the uprift side of the cone. We went to look, and the cracks were continuing to open ahead of us, so we followed along, with the ground splitting open at about the same pace that we were walking. This went on for several hundred meters.
Was this was new lava or old?
This was on cinder-covered ground so you couldn't see the rock that was being cracked, you could just see the cinders slumping into the fissure. We kept falling into these troughs in the cinders as we followed the cracks. There was no heat or gas coming from the cracks at that point, but early the next morning, a fissure eruption began. So we had been on hand to see the fissures opening up.
Wow, so this was right after a fountaining event?
Yeah, it was right after episode 35 at Pu`u `O`o. The fissure eruption went on for a couple of weeks.
What would you rate as the best experience you’ve had while working on a volcano?
The best part is working in some really beautiful areas that are constantly changing. Usually geologists are studying landscapes that took thousands or millions of years to form, and out here in Hawaii we can see drastic changes from day to day. So volcanoes are very powerful places to work. An active volcano almost feels like a living entity.
That leads into the next question about what you like best about your chosen profession. Anything else you want to list about what you like best about being a volcanologist?
I guess it's rare to have a job that people are so interested in and curious about. Everyone wants to know more about volcanoes, which makes all the public speaking I do a lot easier, because the audience is so receptive.
What's the most difficult thing about being a volcanologist?
Well, the job can be physically demanding at times because it's so hot on an active volcano, especially here in Hawaii. And students who are interested in volcanology should be aware that they still have to spend a lot of time indoors staring at a computer. One of the biggest problems for volcanologists is that there aren't enough active volcanoes to go around, so it's hard to find a job.
One final note, we know you are fond of cats and are very active in the local Humane Society. We have a picture of you petting a very large cat, a cheetah, can you tell us a little about what you were doing when this photograph was taken?
I had the honor of meeting that cheetah last year in Namibia. I spent my vacation there volunteering for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which was a fantastic experience. Seeing all the African wildlife for the first time, I felt like the volunteers at HVO feel when they see their first active lava!