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Volcano Watch — DI events at Kīlauea—what are they and what do they mean?

March 29, 2012

As alert volcano watchers are no doubt aware, recent activity at Kīlauea has been to "DI" for. Repeated deflation-inflation, or DI, events are currently dominating deformation of the volcano and have been a familiar theme in daily activity updates since 2008. But what are DI events, and what do they mean?

"DI" tilt events measured at Kīlauea summit March 1-7, 2012. Deflat...
Tilt measured at the summit of Kīlauea during March 1-7, 2012, shows a series of U- and V-shaped DI events, with deflation indicated by downward tilt and inflation by upward tilt. Images from a thermal camera that overlooks the summit eruptive vent demonstrate how the lava level (noted by white dashed line), depicted by warmer colors, charges across tilt cycles. Tilt is measured in microradians, with one microradian equivalent to the change in slope caused by putting a dime under one end of a bar that is 1 km (2/3 mile) long.

DI events are characterized by sudden deflation that lasts for 1–3 days, followed by equally sudden inflation that returns the tilt to pre-event levels. This gives the tilt events a V- or U-shaped appearance in tilt records (see for yourself in the tilt data at The total amount of subsidence during deflation and subsequent uplift during inflation is usually only about an inch (2.5 cm) and appears to be caused by pressure changes about 1 km beneath the east margin of Halema‘uma‘u Crater.

The tilt events are not only recorded at Kīlauea's summit, but also at Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō. Tilt at the east rift zone eruption site has the same overall form as that at the summit but lags behind by a few hours as the pressure change propagates from the summit to Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō.

DI events are often associated with changes in eruptive activity. During the deflation phase, lava effusion at Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō tends to decrease and the summit lava column lowers, while the inflation phase is accompanied by a rise in the summit lava column and sometimes a surge in lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō.

The start of Kīlauea's summit eruption in 2008 caused a major change in the style of DI events. Prior to 2008, the number of tilt events averaged 5–10 per year. In 2008, however, there were 47 events. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, there were 64, 68, and 87 events, respectively. Thus far in 2012, there have been 37 events, on pace to shatter the records from previous years.

The 2008 increase in numbers of DI events corresponds to the start of the summit eruption, when gas emissions from the summit increased markedly (by about a factor of 4–5). As magma loses gas, it becomes denser and sinks, allowing less dense, gas-rich magma to rise towards the surface. This convection, similar to what can be seen in a boiling pot of soup, is common in magma chambers and can even be observed from circulation patterns within Kīlauea's summit eruptive vent. DI events might be an expression of such convection, with the deflation phase corresponding to sinking of dense magma, and inflation resulting from the rise of gas-rich magma.

While satisfying in its simplicity, this model for DI events cannot explain all aspects of their occurrence. For example, there were no DI events during the last two months of 2010, but the first three months of 2011 saw almost continuous DI cycles. Similarly, DI events have been occurring one after the other since the start of 2012. Through it all, gas emissions have remained relatively steady, even decreasing slightly from their 2008 peak. More study is clearly necessary to test ideas about the possible cause of DI events.

Nevertheless, DI events, while minor in terms of their overall magnitude of deformation, are important to Kīlauea's eruptive activity. Frequent DI events can disrupt lava flows from the east rift zone, while periods of no DI events can allow lava from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō to develop robust tube systems to the ocean. Continued monitoring of ground tilt, gas emissions, and other data will undoubtedly reveal even more about these enigmatic events.


Volcano Activity Update

A lava lake present within the Halema`uma`u Overlook vent during the past week resulted in night-time glow that was visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook. The lake, which is normally about 90–115 m (295–377 ft) below the floor of Halema`uma`u Crater and visible by HVO`s Webcam, rose and fell slightly during the week in response to a series of deflation-inflation cycles.

On Kīlauea's east rift zone, surface lava flows were active on the pali and upper coastal plain, in Royal Gardens subdivision, over the past week. As of Thursday, March 29, the flows on the coastal plain had made significant progress towards the coast but were still about 1.6 km (1 mile) from the ocean.

One earthquake beneath Hawai‘i Island was reported felt this past week. A magnitude-4.9 earthquake occurred at 10:47 a.m., HST, on Saturday, March 24, 2012, and was located 1 km (1 mi) west of Honomū at a depth of 44 km (27 mi).