“Uncovering the impact on a changing world”

Ken Rubin, Volcanologist, Geochemist, and Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hawaii Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii

Feature | Honolulu, Hawaii | 25 July 2022
Ken Rubin, Volcanologist, Geochemist and Professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa says that his fascination with volcanoes goes way back to when he was a kid. Credit: ILO Photo/K Cassidy
On a gorgeous sunny day in Honolulu, the wind blows and the deep blue waves of the pacific waters lap into the rock formations of Lanai Lookout in unison.

Here we meet Ken Rubin a volcanologist, geochemist and professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hawaii Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii. From this lookout point on a clear day one can see the islands of Lanai, Molokai and Maui in the distance.

“These are what are called volcaniclastic deposits,” Ken says, pointing to the rock formations and cliffs that make up the lookout point. “When a volcano erupts and makes ash, the ash tends to fall onto the ground like a sediment and the individual layers represent little pulses.”

“When a volcano erupts it’s a very dynamic kind of thing!” he exclaims, both excitedly and emphatically. “As the particles settle back down to the ground they size sort, and the larger denser pieces will fall first. So each one of these little layers represents some tiny little event with that eruption- maybe a second or a minute long,” Rubin explains.

Rubin who holds degrees in Chemistry, Oceanography, and Earth Sciences from the University of California San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was born and raised in California, and has been working in Hawaii for the last 30 years.

The rock formations and cliffs at Lanai Lookout are volcaniclastic deposits, that are created when a volcano erupts and the ash falls onto the ground. The individual layers represent little pulses and are size sorted with the larger denser pieces at the bottom. The rocks share many similarities with sandstone. Credit: ILO Photo/J Isaac
“I came here in ’92 for work. My two choices were Minnesota or here, and I think I picked the right place,” he jokes with a wide grin.

As a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hawaii Mānoa, much of Ken’s research focuses on the rates and styles of active geological processes at volcanoes and shorelines in locations such as Hawaii, Iceland, Tonga, Mexico, as well as the open ocean.

Taking us around the lookout and showing us the different rock formations while providing explanations as to how they came to be, Ken notes, “this is actually one of the field locations we bring our geology students to come and study, and they also learn how to map and so forth.”

In explaining more about the research he focuses on; he informs us that in addition to volcanoes he also studies sea level changes.

“About two thirds of my research is on volcanoes, and I also study sea level change,” he highlights of his work which relates to life below water and life on land - goals 14 and 15 respectively, of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “In my research on volcanoes, I look specifically at how volcanoes and volcanic eruptions impact human populations on land and marine communities that live in and around the submarine volcanoes,” Rubin shares.

According to Prof. Rubin, climate change affects volcanic activity and vice versa. There is a growing awareness that a multi-disciplinary approach is essential in his field and he stresses the importance of being a lifelong learner. Credit: ILO Photo/J Isaac
In discussing the relation between climate change and volcanoes, Ken says that climate change can certainly have an impact on volcanic activity, and that when volcanoes erupt, they too can affect climate in one place or another for a brief period of time.

When asked about his unmistakable enthusiasm and love for his job, Ken smiles and proudly says, “Volcanoes have fascinated me since I was a kid. Some kids are into dinosaurs, or army figures, I’ve always loved volcanoes.” He cites three things that make his job fun for him- “understanding a dynamic part of the Earth,” “being able to work outside and enjoy nature,” as he is not fond of sitting in an office or lab all the time, and finally “being able to work on something that directly ties into people’s lives. Volcanoes affect lots of populations around the world.”

“Technology is everywhere,” Rubin answers in response to the impact technology has on the work he does. “It allows us to know where we are via the use of GPS, to collect materials pull them apart and understand their components, and most importantly it allows us to communicate about our work, and spread information about studying volcanoes, earthquakes and the hazards to people.”

When it comes to the skills needed in his work, Ken says a combination of both hard and soft skills are essential. He particularly emphasizes the importance of skills such as organization, communication, writing and being able to code. While he says subjects like math, physics and chemistry come in handy there are many who come into the field without a background in those subjects and succeed.

“We have some people that come into our field who were drama majors or what have you. As long as you have an open mind and you’re willing to be a lifelong learner, then you can definitely do this kind of work,” he affirms.

As the waves continue to crash against the rock formations at Lanai Lookout, we climb to a different vantage point and excitedly Ken calls our attention to the waters in the distance. “Can you see that? It’s not very clear but you can kind of see the island of Lanai over there,” he says pointing in the distance.