Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Volcano Watch — Geodesy through time: a history of measuring the shape of Hawaiian volcanoes

August 27, 2020

Geodesy is the science of accurately measuring and understanding the Earth's geometric shape, gravity field, and orientation in space—and how these change through time. Many geodesists today map shorelines, determine land boundaries, and improve transportation and navigation.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and colleagues. Today's article is by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geophysicist Sarah Conway.

Color photograph of scientist conducting survey on lava flows
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) Global Positioning System (GPS) survey near the coast in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on September 10, 2019. (Credit: P. Dotray, USGS. Public domain.)

In the past century, geodesists have used different tools and survey methods to help measure the Earth's shape. While these scientists can wear many different hats, geodesists at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) are interested in studying how the surface of a volcano deforms to determine what is happening underground.

This article provides a brief history of different volcano geodetic methods used through time.

Triangulation is one of the most time-honored and earliest methods, gaining traction by the 19th century. Triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring the angles (of a triangle) between control points a known distance apart. This allows measurement of long distances, being controlled only by sight of the beacon. Each calculated distance could then be used to form another triangle forming a complex chain. The earliest triangulation at Kīlauea took place in 1886.

While similar to the geometry you learned in school, the formulae used in triangulation include curvature of the earth due to the lines being kilometers (miles) long. Triangulation was used sporadically for volcano monitoring on Kīlauea, though it was replaced in the mid-20th century by more accurate electronic distance measuring.

Trilateration is a similar surveying technique but instead of measuring the angles, the lengths of the triangle's sides are measured. Any deformation in the region of the established network could then be measured by repeating the survey at a later date.

Leveling, a technique used to measure height differences, has been conducted at Kīlauea since 1921 and was an integral part of HVO's monitoring from the early 1960s until a decade ago. During leveling, the differences in height along a series of benchmarks are measured and then compared with previous measurements to determine the amount of uplift or subsidence.

Leveling remains one of the most precise ways to measure vertical height over long distances. Unfortunately, leveling is rarely done at Kīlauea today due to the amount of staff required and expansion of modern satellite-based techniques, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR).

In the mid-1960s, an Electronic Distance Meter (EDM) was introduced to Kīlauea. With an EDM, distances could be quickly and precisely measured electronically. Most EDMs use a laser to measure the transit time of light through the atmosphere to reflective targets, which are placed around the volcano.

Using the travel time, speed of light, and air temperature and pressure, distance can be calculated with precision of 1 mm (0.04 inch) over a distance of 1 km (0.6 miles). If the distance changes between surveys, deformation is happening! Most EDMs used today are short range and are one component of an integrated instrument known as a "total station." Since the late 1990s at HVO, EDMs have given way to satellite techniques.

Microgravity surveys have been conducted on the Island of Hawai‘i since the early 1970s. The force of gravity depends on the mass beneath your feet and your distance from that mass, so gravity is not a constant as magma moves and the ground surface changes shape. For volcano geodesists, microgravity surveys are conducted to measure how much magma may be moving beneath the ground. Gravimeters are extremely precise (and expensive) instruments that use either a very sensitive spring-and-boom or quartz sensor.

Tiltmeters have been used to monitor volcanoes for decades. Just like a carpenter's level, an electronic tiltmeter uses a small container filled with a conducting fluid that has a bubble to measure a change in slope. There are a variety of tiltmeters used but the majority of tiltmeters on the Island of Hawai‘i are installed in boreholes at least a few meters (5–20 feet) deep to control surface noise.

The most common geodetic tools used by HVO today are high-precision Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which includes GPS and InSAR; these have been described in two recent "Volcano Watch" articles (see here […] and here […]).

Geodesists from around the world come to the Island of Hawai‘i to study Earth's ever-changing shape, with Kīlauea and other Hawaiian volcanoes making it a great "natural laboratory!"

Volcano Activity Update

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, see

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 current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.

This past week, about 90 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded beneath the upper-elevations of Mauna Loa; most of these occurred at shallow depths of less than 8 kilometers (about 5 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 current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, see:

There were 2 events with 3 or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a M2.7 earthquake 10 km (6 mi) ENE of Pāhala at 32 km (19 mi) depth on Aug. 25 at 10:41 p.m. HST and a M3.0 earthquake 1 km (0 mi) ESE of Pāhala at 34 km (21 mi) depth on Aug. 23 at 10:50 a.m. HST.

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

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.