Kevan Kamibayashi’s First Encounter with Kïlauea Changed His Life
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The first time I saw flowing lava, that was it . . . I was hooked!” That is how Kevan Kamibayashi describes his first encounter with an active volcano back in 1992, at the age of 11.
Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Kevan had come to the Big Island for a two-week summer program run by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Nä Pua No‘eau, Center for Gifted and Talented Native Hawaiian Children. Offered a choice of classes, he signed up for “Rocks and Rolls,” imagining a chance to play around with music. It turned out instead to be a class in geology . . . and it marked a turning point in his life.
Today, Kevan Kamibayashi works as the chief field engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, where he can see flowing lava pretty much every day. During that first program, taught as a hands-on field laboratory at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park by Dr. Jim Kauahikaua, HVO research geophysicist and scientist-in-charge from 2004 to 2015, and Dr. Jim Anderson, UH Hilo geology department faculty member, Kevan not only had a chance to see active lava flows, but also learned how to map them by hand, pre-GPS (global positioning system), using a compass and pacing out measurements. He found the experience way more fun than rock ’n’ roll.
“Taking a lava sample was absurdly cool . . . spooky, but really cool,” he said.
Previously a just passing student, he entered the seventh grade at Kaua‘i High School that fall with a fresh passion for the natural sciences and a new motivation for learning.
“Nä Pua No‘eau taught me that I knew how to learn and that I could learn . . . just in a different way.”
Kevan returned to the Big Island for Nä Pua No‘eau every summer through high school. During those years, he spent his free time playing with machines, starting with radio control toys and then tinkering with electronics. He loved taking machines apart and then trying to put them back together again — his mom’s vacuum cleaner being one of his memorable failures. While working on another experiment, he actually blew up his stereo while tinkering with a component to amplify the sound by directing more current through the volume knob.
For a while, his family dubbed him the “Broke Mechanic,” likely to break anything he touched. By his late teens, however, he had intuitively developed the ability to not only put machines back together, but to actually improve them.
The child of a typical “mixed plate” local family, Kevan grew up in ‘Öma‘o on Kaua‘i’s west side. His great-great-grandfather immigrated to Hawai‘i from Kagoshima and married an Issei woman from Fukuoka. Kevan’s Japanese grandfather married a Puerto Rican woman and made his living running a snack wagon. Kevan’s mother comes from a large Hawaiian family of ranchers and kalo (taro) farmers. But no one in Kevan’s family had a background in science or engineering.
Prior to his introduction to Nä Pua No‘eau, “I didn’t even know that you could have a career in science,” he said. “My biggest goal in life was to drive a rig!”
After graduating from high school in 1998, Kevan returned to Hilo and enrolled in Hawai‘i Community College. He also got a summer job at HVO through the Minority Participation in Earth Sciences Program. Kevan’s assignment was to cut volcanic rock samples. But, it was ultimately his tinkering ability that turned this temporary student job into a full-time position.
During his first semester break, HVO was short-handed and called him back for a short stint: They needed a technician to solder an electronics enclosure for an analog tiltmeter and asked Kevan to try to fabricate one before the end of his two-week vacation. He managed to produce three in his first week alone, and, he says, “They have never let me go since then.”
After community college, Kevan continued the formal study of geology at UH Hilo, relishing coursework in topics like volcanology, field methods, mineralogy and petrology. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2004, he moved into full-time work with the observatory, and today — 20 years after starting as a part-timer — he has a long list of accomplishments under his belt.
Kevan currently leads a team of engineers responsible for maintaining the entire array of instruments that monitor Hawai‘i’s active volcanoes and associated earthquakes. Visitors to the Jaggar Museum on the rim of Kïlauea Caldera get to see seismometers continuously tracing the motion of the earth, but modern volcano monitoring involves a multiplicity of other instrumentation, as well: GPS devices, tiltmeters, strain meters, gravity meters, gas monitors, webcams and much more. Over the last decade, HVO’s entire system has been converted from analog to digital, and the observatory has moved into the forefront as the first all-digital volcano-monitoring network in the United States.
HVO deploys and maintains sensors at 240 different sites around the island, monitoring not just Kïlauea, but also Mauna Loa, Hualälai, Maunakea (and even Haleakalä on Maui). It’s up to Kevan and his team to make sure that every one of these devices is properly built and deployed, no small feat in the case of those that have to be slung into place from a helicopter above an actively erupting volcano.
Instrument maintenance is critical to HVO’s operations, and the team is constantly rebuilding the network to take advantage of new technologies. Their end goal is to ensure that the data produced by their instruments is accurately and continuously fed into the observatory to be interpreted by scientists and shared with other entities.
Beyond the scientific value of this data, Kevan sees protecting the health and safety of the public and Hawai‘i residents as his team’s most important duty. Public safety was top of mind for Kevan in 2014 and 2015 during Kïlauea’s longest lava flow in several hundred years as it advanced toward the town of Pähoa for agonizing months on end, threatening to destroy it and cut off services to a large portion of the island. He recalls Hawai‘i County Civil Defense asking him to perform an overnight lava watch, standing outside all night in the pouring rain in a pasture below the Japanese cemetery, watching in disbelief as the lava crept closer and closer to the property line.
“As interesting as it is scientifically, it’s something I hope I never have to experience again because of the impact on the community,” Kevan said. “Putting effort into our work, we can’t forget that we have friends and family here, too, so we are dedicating ourselves not only to science, also to public safety.”
While the Big Island is home to the longest continuously erupting volcano in the U.S., Kevan has also had off-island opportunities to apply his skills and training. In Washington state’s Cascade Mountains, he helped deploy instrumentation packages in response to the 2004 Mount St. Helens eruption. Memorably, he was still en route home to Hawai‘i when he learned that the instruments had already been destroyed in the eruption. Nevertheless, Kevan counted the project as a success, as the sensors had captured the activity in time for the Federal Aviation Administration to be notified and for air traffic to be rerouted.
Alaska’s Katmai National Park, with its dense cluster of volcanoes, is another area where Kevan has performed field missions. He calls it “a majestic location, but surreal and a little bit scary” — so isolated that “it takes an hour and a half to fly into the site, but if anything happened, it would require a month and a half to hike back out of the wilderness.”
Unlike the harsh winters of Washington and Alaska, field engineering in Hawai‘i literally takes place all year round, leaving Kevan’s team little down time for back office activities such as documentation and writing. Another difference is Hawai‘i’s plentiful access to solar power, enabling HVO to utilize more power-hungry instruments as well as newly emerging technology.
Kïlauea has played a significant role in not just Kevan’s professional career, but his personal life, as well.
In 2004, while helping to teach a summer class on volcanology, he found himself down at the ocean entry point, demonstrating a new instrument for mapping the lava delta. A young woman from West Virginia who was volunteering as an interpretive guide for the national park came over to ask questions. With a bachelor’s degree in geology — and two others in archaeology and anthropology — she shared Kevan’s passion for the volcano. Today, they are married and living a short distance outside of the park. Sara Kami-
bayashi works for the Hawai‘i State Library as the branch manager for Ka‘ü, supervising the libraries in Nä‘älehu and Pähala.
Public outreach is not an official part of Kevan’s job description, but ever mindful that U.S. taxpayer funds pay their salaries, he and his colleagues at HVO feel a responsibility to share their unique access with a broader audience. And, given the impact that first-hand exposure to the volcano had on his own academic and career direction, Kevan is especially happy for opportunities to engage with local high school or college students who are in the midst of figuring out their own paths. In 2017, he and his mentor, Jim Kauahikaua, were featured on an episode of PBS’ “Road Trip Nation,” inspiring a group of young local people with his personal experience and career advice.
Whether interacting with local students or with visiting scientists from around the globe, Kevan enjoys talking about instrument engineering as an example of what goes on behind the scenes to make scientific output possible. For students who may be afraid of formal textbook science or unsure of their ability to succeed, he encourages looking at pathways and job prospects in ancillary fields like his own.
At age 37, Kevan already has 20 years of HVO field experience under his belt and looks forward to many more, fully expecting that he and his team will rebuild the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s monitoring network at least once or twice over before they retire. The dynamic nature of both technology and the volcano — “it doesn’t get old,” he beams — promises to keep his job fresh and exciting for years to come. And, having lived more than half his life near the volcano on the Big Island, Kevan Kamibayashi gives every impression that there is no place in the world that he’d rather be.
Margaret Shiba is the director of institutional advancement for the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. She and her Hawai‘i island-born husband Kenji lived in New York for over three decades before pulling up stakes and relocating to the Big Island, where they now reside in Ähualoa on the Hämäkua coast. They are active members of the Paauilo Kongöji Mission.