VOLCANOWatch: HVO Staff Lend a Helping Hand to Alaska Colleagues

Volcano observatories across the United States work together to ensure efficient and thorough monitoring of the nation’s active volcanoes. This collaboration is particularly evident during a crisis, like the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea Volcano.

In 2018, scientists, field engineers, and administrative professionals from across the U.S. Geological Survey Volcano Science Center came to the Island of Hawaiʻi to assist the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in monitoring Kīlauea’s lower East Rift Zone lava flows and summit collapses. Their assistance was critical to maintaining HVO’s 24/7 response capability.

Collaboration between volcano observatories also occurs in non-crisis times—for example, helping with regularly scheduled field operations. Some volcano observatories, such as the one in Alaska, must accomplish all fieldwork in the summer because other times of the year can bring harsh weather and dangerous working conditions. Since the summer field season in Alaska is short, it is important to use temporary help from other states.

The field season for the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) staff is intense. The sun is almost always up, and the daylight hours are fully used when weather permits. Help from other volcano observatories allows field teams to be rotated every month to avoid burn-out.

This summer, several HVO staff traveled to Alaska to help build new, and upgrade old, seismic monitoring sites on western Aleutian volcanoes. This is part of a big step that AVO is taking to convert their entire seismic network from an analog to an all-digital network. This is important because digital instruments can detect a wider range of earthquake signals, which, in turn, helps scientists “see” more types of processes happening beneath the ground surface. HVO made the transition to a digital network in 2014‒2017.

Our work began on Adak, an island about 1770 km (1100 mi) southwest from Anchorage, Alaska. The island, home to a military base from 1942 to 1997, is eerily peaceful now that most of the facilities have been abandoned. It was our base of operations—the hub, where more-remote field stations tie into the Alaska volcano monitoring network.

From Adak, we boarded the research vessel (RV) Steadfast, which took us across the Bering Sea anywhere from 35 to 750 km (22 to 466 mi) to different volcanoes. The RV Steadfast was our home away from home, until the boat returned to Adak to rotate in a new field crew, refuel, and restock supplies.

Once we reached the targeted volcano, the captain dropped anchor in a harbor that would be mostly protected from potentially fierce, incoming Aleutian storms. From there, we flew in the onboard helicopter to go back and forth from the ship to the different field sites.

The weather was always a factor in our work. We were shrouded in fog nearly every morning, but we had to be ready to fly to a field site at the drop of a hat. Whenever the helicopter pilot deemed that a safe window of opportunity had arrived, we loaded up and took off.

Once we landed on the volcano, the real work began. We dug a foundation for the equipment hut and a 2-meter- (about 6-ft-) deep hole, where the seismometer would reside and “listen” for ground motions (earthquakes). Solar panels were mounted on the hut, which housed 15 deep-cycle 12-volt batteries to power the electronics that digitizes signals from the seismometer and sends data back to Adak via radio.

Once in a while, when looking up to catch our breath, we would notice the majestic snow-capped peaks surrounding us. But those times were brief. We were in a race against the sun while battling the ever-changing weather conditions.

The work was difficult but rewarding. Living in close quarters, continuously strategizing to overcome the elements, and working as a team on a remote volcano, led to a bond with our AVO colleagues that will last beyond the Aleutian fieldwork.

HVO is always busy with Hawaiian volcanoes but assisting our sister observatories is also part of what we do. No matter where a volcano is located, our mission is always the same—to enhance public safety through information and science.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kῑlauea Volcano is not erupting and its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at NORMAL. Updates for Kīlauea are now issued monthly. 

Kīlauea deformation and seismicity showed no notable changes over the past week. Sulfur dioxide emission rates are low at the summit and below detection limits at Puʻu ʻŌʻō and the lower East Rift Zone (LERZ). The water pond at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u continues to slowly expand and deepen.

At or near the 2018 LERZ eruptive fissures, elevated ground temperatures and minor releases of gas (steam, tiny amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide) persist. These are typical post-eruption conditions and are expected to be long-term.

Hazards remain at the LERZ and summit of Kīlauea. Closures and warnings in these areas should be heeded. The 2018 lava flows are primarily on private property; please be respectful and do not enter or park on private property.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption is certain.

This past week, about 90 small-magnitude earthquakes (all less than M2.5) were detected beneath the upper elevations of Mauna Loa. Deformation measurements show continued summit inflation. Changes in volcanic gas emission and fumarole temperature readings this past week were due to HVO maintenance on the instrument sensors.

A brief data gap from GPS station MOKP was due to a malfunctioning receiver that has now been replaced. Data from other instruments allowed HVO to continue monitoring the volcano until the repair was made.

Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly. For more info on the status of the volcano, click here.

One earthquake with three or more felt reports occurred in Hawaii this past week: a magnitude-2.5 quake 12 km (7 mi) southwest of Leilani Estates at 4 km (2 mi) depth on Sept. 11 at 4:47 p.m. HST.

HVO continues to closely monitor both Kīlauea and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.

Photo caption:  A USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist, while assisting Alaska Volcano Observatory colleagues this summer, mounted a radio antenna on an upgraded seismic station at Great Sitkin Volcano in the western Aleutian Islands. USGS photo by A. Darold, 06-20-2019.

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