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Significant Scientific Achievement, But at Great Personal Cost

December 7, 2012

Thomas Jaggar and his wife, Isabel, hiking on Mauna Loa during the September 1919 Southwest Rift Zone eruption. (see lava in back left of photo!) USGS archive photo.

The following is this week’s installment of “Volcano Watch” from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:
After years of fund-raising, Thomas Jaggar, Jr., finally got the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) up and running at Kīlauea Volcano in January 1912. Within the first year, he had already achieved some significant scientific results, so it seems to us—100 years later—that he must have felt pretty good about those accomplishments.The collection and analysis of volcanic gas samples was a major focus of Jaggar’s work. On December 4, he oversaw a bold gas sampling descent into Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. At the time, there was an active lava lake in the crater, about 120 m (400 ft) below the crater rim. Dr. E.S. Shepherd, a guest scientist, was still trying to obtain fresh volcanic gas samples before they mixed with air. He had tried to pump gas out of a tumulus in May, only to find that water condensation messed up their sampling scheme.

Their December plan was different. Because the May sampling showed that water was abundant, they were going to take evacuated glass tubes, break the tube seals at the gas vent, and fill the tubes with gas before resealing them. Shepherd, H.O. Wood (Jaggar’s assistant), and long-time guide Alex Lancaster climbed down rope ladders and rubbly slopes to get to the crater floor. They timed their trip to be late in the day hoping to use the darkness to show them where gas was coming out, under pressure, as a jetting flame.

The crater was filled with choking volcanic fume, requiring the use of protective masks. Alex led the way to the fumaroles and made sure everyone got out safely. Jaggar handled all ropes for the descent but remained at the rim to oversee the experiment’s progress and, probably, to be a lookout for any hazardous changes to the conditions in the crater.

The gas samples were still not optimum for the desired analyses, but Shepherd and his colleague published their findings the following year, concluding that “… water released from the liquid lava when it reaches the surface is entitled to be considered an original component of the lava with as much right as the sulphur or the carbon.”

Despite these findings and others obtained later, Thomas Jaggar never accepted the conclusion that water was an original component of volcanic gas. So while this early scientific result was hailed as an early proof of his HVO concept, he himself didn’t believe the answer.

Thomas Jaggar wrote many scientific and philosophical papers, but he wrote very little about his personal life. When he came to Kīlauea Volcano in January 1912, his wife, son, and baby daughter remained in Boston. In March, Jaggar received an urgent message from his wife to return to Boston because of his children’s health, and he hastily left Hawaiʻi. But he returned to Kīlauea in July, again without his family, to resume stewardship of HVO.

In those days, inter-island travel was done by boat, and lists of passengers were published in the Honolulu newspapers. It is through these old newspapers that we know of a visit to Hawaiʻi by Mrs. Jaggar, her two children, and a maid. They arrived in Honolulu in late November and stayed at the Pleasanton Hotel near Punahou School in the Makiki District. Jaggar had hoped that his son, Kline, would attend school in Honolulu. Jaggar was in Honolulu to greet his family and brought them to Kīlauea Volcano and his life’s work just before the December gas sampling experiment.

Sadly, Jaggar’s private life didn’t fare well during his first year at Kīlauea. His wife and children left Hawaiʻi to return to Boston in early 1913, and the couple soon divorced. Then, his father died in December. But Jaggar dove back into work, documenting the lava lake within Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, giving talks about his work, and advocating for a National Park at Kīlauea Volcano.

In spite of his rough beginning in Hawaiʻi, Jaggar achieved success. The Halemaʻumaʻu lava lake was scientifically documented in many reports, and the Park was established in 1916. In 1917, Jaggar married kindred spirit Isabel Maydwell, with whom he continued his interest in Kīlauea Volcano until his death in 1953.

Current webcam view of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u Crater. (USGS)

Kīlauea Activity Update

A lava lake within the Halemaʻumaʻu Overlook vent produced night-time glow that was visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and via HVO’s Webcam during the past week. The lava level rose slightly over this period but was relatively steady, experiencing only small fluctuations.

On Kīlauea’s east rift zone, surface lava flows are still active on the coastal plain and entering the ocean near Kupapa`u. The flows and ocean entry are east of the eastern boundary of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Within the Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater, the northeastern pit still holds a small lava lake, and glow emanates from other points on the northwestern and southeastern parts of the crater floor.

No earthquakes were reported felt under the Island of Hawaiʻi in the past week.

Visit our Web site ( for detailed Kīlauea and Mauna Loa activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes, and more; call (808) 967-8862 for a Kīlauea activity summary; email questions to

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