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Volcano Watch: HVO Erupts With Gratitude For University of Hawaiʻi Partners

January 13, 2022, 5:00 PM HST
* Updated January 13, 3:40 PM
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The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is made up of experts with a wide variety of specializations. Seismologists, geodesists, geochemists, geologists, technicians, and support staff all work together to accomplish the same mission: to monitor, research, and assess hazards related to volcanoes and earthquakes in Hawai‘i.

HVO’s staff is mostly made up of federal employees; however, many critical tasks are handled by staff members affiliated with the University of Hawaiʻi.

Thanks to late Hawai‘i Senator Daniel Inouye, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (UHH), and the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV), a cooperative agreement with the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaiʻi (RCUH) was established in 1998.

Since then, many RCUH employees have played crucial roles at HVO, helping with real-time volcano monitoring, assessing hazards, disseminating information, and conducting research on Hawaiian volcanoes.

Much of this work is done behind the scenes, but the start of Kīlauea’s ongoing summit eruption on Sept. 29 helped shine a spotlight on these RCUH employees as HVO rapidly responded to an eruption that showed very little precursory activity.

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Kass Ulmer, a RCUH seismologist, is generally one of the first people at the observatory to spot changes occurring within the volcanoes. They monitor seismic data to look for subtle low-frequency signals, small earthquake migrations, and deep tremor.

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The recent Kīlauea eruption was no different. Kass quickly identified complex patterns in seismic activity below Halema‘uma‘u crater that suggested an eruption was imminent. They immediately notified other HVO staff and the decision was made to raise the alert level, notify field crews, and prepare for an eruption.

HVO quickly released information to the public thanks to Katie Mulliken, another RCUH scientist who specializes in public communication. Katie worked closely with others at HVO to raise Kīlauea’s Volcano Alert Level prior to the eruption; she continued to put eruption information on the HVO website after the eruption started to keep Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park staff and the public informed. The entire event from first detection to eruption unfolded in less than 45 minutes.

Real-time monitoring, forecasting and detecting eruptive activity is a major part of HVO’s mission, along with informing the public of changes in activity. But there are other important HVO responsibilities including data collation, documenting activity, and historical analysis that cooperative projects with UHH/CSAV help HVO accomplish.

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Lil DeSmither and Miki Warren are two other RCUH employees who participate in crucial projects at HVO. Lil is often part of the geology field crews; she’s gained experience by routinely monitoring volcanic activity during the Pu‘u‘ō‘ō, 2018 lower East Rift Zone, and recent Kīlauea summit eruptions. In the field, Lil measures Halema‘uma‘u lava lake, lava fountain heights, and other features using a laser rangefinder. She also helps collect, organize, post, and archive visual and thermal photographs and videos during helicopter overflights. These products are then used to create eruption maps, Digital Elevation Models (DEMs), and eruption chronologies.

Miki conducts the majority of Kīlauea’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission rate measurements — one of the most critical gas datasets at HVO. Sulfur dioxide emissions inform us about eruption intensity and potential for vog (volcanic air pollution) in communities downwind. Miki also calculates the height of the summit volcanic gas plume from camera imagery and assists with water sampling, gas sampling, and other gas measurement campaigns.

Several RCUH postdoctoral researchers at HVO work on projects related to volcanic ash deposits, volcanic plumes, and lava flow modeling. HVO is also in the process of bringing a ground deformation specialist on board through RCUH. The cooperative agreement has also supported Dr. Cheryl Gansecki and Dr. Steven Lundblad’s real-time geochemistry lab at UHH that played an important role in monitoring the 2018 eruption.

These current RCUH employees are just a small sample of the many RCUH staff that have aided HVO over the years. The dedication and passion that the RCUH employees bring to work every day contributes to HVO’s mission and several RCUH employees have gone on to have careers with the USGS.

Collaborative and cooperative work between USGS and RCUH staff enhances data acquisition, hazard assessments, and information distribution at HVO. At times, this work is difficult and can go unnoticed, but it is vital to volcano and earthquake monitoring in Hawaii. USGS and RCUH staff at HVO, with diverse backgrounds, and specialties, work together to accomplish our mission at the highest possible level.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kīlauea volcano is erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is at WATCH (https://www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/volcano-hazards/about-alert-levels). Kīlauea updates are issued daily.

Lava returned to the western vent within Halemaʻumaʻu crater at about 6:40 p.m. HST on Jan. 11, following a pause lasting less than 24 hours. All lava is confined within Halemaʻumaʻu crater in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Sulfur dioxide emission rates remain elevated and were measured at approximately 3,300 tonnes per day on Jan. 6. A flurry of small-magnitude earthquakes recorded 10-14 km (6-9 miles) below the summit over the past week has diminished but is ongoing; volcanic tremor continues. Summit tiltmeter data has recorded several deflation and inflation trends over the past week. For more information on the current eruption of Kīlauea, see Recent Eruption (usgs.gov).

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 45 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded below the summit and upper elevation flanks of Mauna Loa — the majority of these occurred at shallow depths less than 10 kilometers (6 miles). Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements show no major deformation over the past week. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at both the summit and at Sulphur Cone on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa, see: https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/monitoring.

No felt earthquakes were reported in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week.

HVO continues to closely monitor Kīlauea’s ongoing eruption and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.

Please visit HVO’s website for past Volcano Watch articles, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Email questions to [email protected]

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

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