Volcano Watch: A picture is worth a thousand volcano watch articles

The perched lava pond within Pu‘u ‘O‘o, shown here on June 29, 2011, has been the site of dramatic growth and uplift over the past weeks. Photo courtesy of USGS/HVO

The perched lava pond within Pu‘u ‘O‘o, shown here on June 29, 2011, has been the site of dramatic growth and uplift over the past weeks. Photo courtesy of USGS/HVO


(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

This week marks the occasion of the 1,000th published Volcano Watch article. For nearly two decades, these articles, written predominantly by the staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), have appeared in local newspapers and on HVO’s Web site.

Volcano Watch articles have covered such diverse topics as the activity of the volcanoes in our backyard to those in the outer reaches of our solar system, earthquakes and tsunami activity, monitoring methods, natural hazards, and volcanoes’ impacts on the environment and society. The first article, written in 1991, described the eruptive activity at that time and a new technique for measuring erupted lava volume. Today’s article uses the theme of 1,000 to highlight a few of the monitoring and activity changes that have occurred over the period of the volcano watch articles.

For less than 1,000 dollars, HVO scientists can now build digital time-lapse camera systems, which can be positioned to capture dynamic volcanic events around the clock. These systems, first deployed in 2004, act as surrogate eyes, and are the source of the time-lapse movies that appear on the HVO Web site (hvo.wr.usgs.gov/). Volcano aficionados can view vent development, overflows, and collapses, fountaining and gas pistoning events, and coastal phenomena, such as bubble bursts, tube breakouts, and delta collapses. Time-lapse cameras are easily deployed, offering an inexpensive alternative to Webcams. They have aided in the understanding of volcanic processes and helped scientists and land managers assess local hazards and risk.

While “power to the people” has been a familiar rallying cry for decades, getting power for many volcano monitoring instruments has become easier over time. Since instruments must sometimes be carried significant distances over remote, unstable, or hot volcanic terrain, sufficient power to run them is an important consideration. The miniaturization of computers and innovative use of technology has enabled welcomed breakthroughs in volcano monitoring equipment since the writing of the first volcano watch articles.

For instance, volcanic sulfur dioxide gas can be used as a signature for tracking the ascent and eventual eruption of magma. Formerly, a spectroscopic instrument that weighed around 1,000 ounces (approximately 60 pounds or 28 kg) and used more than 1,000 milliamps (1 amp) of power from a deep-cycle car battery or AC power from a generator was used to measure the amount of this gas.

A new instrument that uses a charge-coupled device (CCD) for detecting ultraviolet light weighs less than five pounds and runs on the power from a sub-notebook computer for hours at a time. This instrument has improved our understanding of gas emissions and impacts by enabling rapid deployment and increasing measurement frequency.

The dynamic nature of Kilauea can be highlighted by rolling back increments of 1,000 in time. The nine-year-old east rift eruption had a major vent location shift 1,000 weeks ago (19 years). The Kupaianaha vent, which had been active since 1986, stopped erupting, and activity returned uprift to Pu`u `O `o, the original site of the 1983 east rift eruption and the current locus of east rift activity.

The current summit eruption, which began in early 2008, paused for a period of several weeks as it neared the end of the calendar year 1,000 days ago (2.7 years).

Within the last 1,000 hours (17 days), the active lava pond within Pu`u O`o has become perched well above the crater floor. Due to pond overflows and uplift, the crater floor is less than 30 m (100 ft) below the east rim of Pu`u `O`o.

Within the last 1,000 minutes (17 hours) of this writing, 5 earthquakes, all of magnitude less than 2, were located beneath Kilauea Volcano.

What might imaginary scientists writing Volcano Watch articles from the past have documented? An article from 1,000 years ago might have mentioned the smooth profile of the summit of Mauna Loa (the summit caldera formed only 600-750 years ago). An article from 1,000 decades ago (10,000 years) might have highlighted the prevalence of active surface flows (98 percent of Mauna Loa has been resurfaced with lava since then). An article from 1,000 centuries ago might have touted the fact that the youthful Kilauea had finally grown above sea level (50,000-100,000 years ago), setting the stage for our current era of volcano watching.

[jwplayer config=”550×310-16:9″ mediaid=”61312″]
Time-lapse movie of Pu‘u ‘O‘o from December 29, 2011 to January 6, 2012

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