Hawai'i Volcano Blog

Volcano Watch: Crack Team of Geologists Measure the Koa‘e Fault System

Listen to this Article
4 minutes
Loading Audio... Article will play after ad...
Playing in :00

UH-Hilo geology majors measure the vertical offset of Hilina Pali road on Kulanaokuaiki Pali in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park shortly after the end of Kīlauea’s 2018 eruption in September. Events in 2018 offset the road at this location by approximately 20 cm (8 in). UH-Hilo photo by S. Lundblad.

The Koa‘e fault system connects Kīlauea’s East and Southwest Rift Zones south of the caldera. Faults here appear as low cliffs, or “scarps” along Hilina Pali Road in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. These fault-cliffs slip during major earthquakes, such as those of May 4, 2018 — near the beginning of Kīlauea’s 2018 eruption.

Koa‘e fault movements have offset ancient lava flows by as much as 50 feet over a period of centuries. This area provides an important long-term record of motion due to the lack of recent lava flows covering the faults, which makes it an ideal location to study the motion of Kīlauea’s south flank. More recently, faults have offset roads and footpaths used by early Hawaiians. So, how much fresh offset took place during and after the 2018 eruption?

A recent “Volcano Watch” article detailed how geodesy, the science of measuring Earth’s shape, is used to measure the shape of Hawaiian volcanoes. New technologies, such as satellite interferometry and the Global Positioning System (GPS), depend on satellites to make geodetic measurements.

One older approach, “leveling,” however, remains a valuable geodetic method some 170 years after it was invented. USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) scientists have used it for decades to study our volcanoes, with important results.


Since the 2018 eruption, the Geology Department at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Hilo has partnered with HVO scientists to do “old school” leveling where it is the best approach available. UH-Hilo has capable and enthusiastic geology students, and over the years many have volunteered to measure the cracks and faults.

Leveling uses telescopes aimed at hand-held, graded stadia rods, essentially giant vertical rulers, at specifically positioned field stations. The equipment is used to precisely measure elevation differences between stations marked by stainless steel bolts cemented into bedrock. Horizontal distances between stations are determined with ordinary measuring tapes. If elevations and distances have changed during the time since the previous measurements, repeat leveling will detect it even down to the millimeter scale.

Leveling requires teams of people working along an established grid in the field, and it’s time-intensive. Field stations are commonly set around 300 feet apart.

Fortunately, USGS scientists first began leveling along the Koa‘e faults in the 1960s, providing a long-standing record of data and field stations already in place. Around each leveling station is an array of subsidiary “crack stations,” allowing measurement across individual Koa‘e faults and their related ground cracks.


Going back to the 1960s, we find that in a typical year the roughly two-mile land strip encompassed by the Koa‘e fault system widens by about 1.5 cm, just over half an inch. Individual faults move only a few mm each, about 1/8 of an inch. In contrast, the largest vertical movement recorded during the 2018 earthquakes along a single fault was over 40 cm, or 16 inches.

When the Koa‘e faults move, they either slide vertically or open to create a deep crack. A dramatic example of opening was the Hilina Pali Road 2018 faulting near Kulanaokuaiki campground, which split the road. The prominent slope the road ascends is a result of repeated fault movement over several hundred years. Shortly after the end of the 2018 eruption, leveling revealed that the rates of change along the Koa‘e faults quickly returned to the much slower normal pace.

We’ve learned several important things about the behavior of the fault system from the on-going Koa‘e leveling campaign. Most of the relief along these cliffs is created by large events. The faults are also very efficient “earth movers.” Very few new cracks formed as a result of the large geologic events of 2018.

Instead, motion tends to continue repeatedly along existing cracks, opening them wider and making their scarps taller over time. The motions along the Koa‘e faults are also sensitively tied to what happens elsewhere on the volcano, even many miles away, such as the 2018 earthquakes underneath Kīlauea’s south flank and the repeated collapse of the summit caldera.


UH Hilo students, working closely with scientists, played important roles in collecting and analyzing the data supporting these insights. Thus far, two groups of students have traveled to scientific conferences to present their findings. We are proud of the contributions these new researchers have made to the Island of Hawai‘i community and the wider world of science.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kīlauea Volcano is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at NORMAL. Kīlauea updates are issued monthly.

Kīlauea monitoring data for the past month show variable but typical rates of seismicity and ground deformation, low rates of sulfur dioxide emissions, and only minor geologic changes since the end of eruptive activity in September 2018. The water lake at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u continues to slowly expand and deepen. For the most current information on the lake, go online.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption from the current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.

This past week, about 80 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded beneath the upper-elevations of Mauna Loa. Most of these occurred at shallow depths of less than five miles. Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements show long-term slowly increasing summit inflation, consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures as measured at both Sulphur Cone and the summit remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on the current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, go online.

No felt earthquakes were reported in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week. HVO continues to closely monitor both Kīlauea and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity. Email questions to [email protected].

Sponsored Content

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay in-the-know with daily or weekly
headlines delivered straight to your inbox.


This comments section is a public community forum for the purpose of free expression. Although Big Island Now encourages respectful communication only, some content may be considered offensive. Please view at your own discretion. View Comments