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The Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center Aerial Imaging and Mapping Group Aids in Monitoring and Mapping the Kīlauea Volcanic Eruption

Interagency drone pilots from the USGS, Bureau of Land Management, and Office of Aviation Services, and four data managers, join the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in monitoring and mapping efforts of the eruption.

This article is part of the September 2018 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.  

 Department of Interior UAS pilots
Department of Interior UAS pilots from left to right: Elizabeth Pendleton (USGS, Woods Hole, MA), Colin Milone (Office of Aviation Services, AK), John Vogel (USGS; Flagstaff, AZ), Sandy Brosnahan (USGS, Woods Hole, MA), Brandon Forbes (USGS; Tucson, AZ), Chris Holmquist-Johnson (USGS; Fort Collins, CO), Hannah Dietterich (USGS; Anchorage, AK), and Emily Sturdivant (USGS, Woods Hole, MA).

On May 3, 2018, Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, began an over three-month-long eruption. Tina Neal and the rest of her team at the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) have been spearheading all Kīlauea monitoring and data-analysis efforts, and continue to provide regular updates on the status of the volcano.

To provide operational support to HVO and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on their science- and emergency-response missions, the USGS National Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Project Office, with funding from FEMA, arranged for 34 interagency drone pilots and four data managers to join them on the Big Island. The pilots represent the USGS, Bureau of Land Management, and Office of Aviation Services (who were the UAS-support organizational lead).

Among the USGS drone pilots were Sandy Brosnahan, Emily Sturdivant, Elizabeth Pendleton, and Seth Ackerman of the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center Aerial Imaging and Mapping (AIM) group. The AIM group uses UAS technology, more simply known as drones, to acquire imagery and videos of various environments and produce detailed topographic and visual maps to meet many science objectives.

Spattering lava erupts from dark ground.
Lava fountain at fissure 8 in the lower East Rift Zone, draining the Halemaumau Crater at the summit of the larger Kīlauea caldera.
Far in the distance a hill spews smoke with lava pouring out, sky is dark with clouds, foreground is lifeless and burnt.
The fissure 8 cone (located in the Leilani Estates housing community), which reached heights of 50 meters. The lava pours out of the cone at a velocity of 13-16 miles per hour.
Two smiling people stand together with their arms around each other's back, volcanic fissure cone in far distance spewing smoke.
Seth Ackerman and Elizabeth Pendleton, UAS pilots from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with the fissure 8 cone in the background.
Photograph of USGS personnel in front of an active volcano
Emily Sturdivant and Elizabeth Pendleton working the night shift, standing with the fissure 8 cone in the background.

At Kīlauea, the AIM group, as well as the other drone pilots, used UAS technology to provide HVO, FEMA, and others with 24-hour real-time (and near-real-time) eyes in the sky to help monitor and map the volcanic eruption. Gas sensors and thermal, still, and video cameras were used to collect data at the volcanic crater, called the caldera, and at fissure 8, the most active fissure vent and source of the 8-mile lava ‘river’ that runs from the fissure to the ocean entry point. These data are an important way to monitor changes in harmful gas concentrations; lava flow extent, temperature, and velocity;  and to identify overflows or spillovers (instances where lava breaks outside the main channel and forms a new pathway) along the active flow channel. These data are also converted to 3D maps to assess landscape change over time. For example, the lava lake that once filled the caldera has been draining throughout Kīlauea’s eruption, and the void this created resulted in increased seismic activity (earthquakes), which caused the crater to collapse in on itself; the 3D elevation maps document the caldera collapse and help HVO volcanologists determine the volume of collapse. Additionally, the maps document the new crust forming between fissure 8 and the lava’s ocean entry point.

View from the sky of a massive lava flow with glowing lava and smoke coming from a fissure in the earth.
An aerial view, collected from a USGS UAS, of Hawai‛i’s fissure 8 cone, and the start of the 8-mile lava flow to reach the ocean entry point.
View from above at an angle of a deep pit with some smoke deep inside, ground is barren, sides of pit are collapsing.
Kīlauea summit photo taken on September 6, 2018.

Maps derived from still imagery, gas concentrations, and flow velocity measurements keep volcanologists informed of changes in volcanic output, while simultaneously providing around-the-clock situational awareness through video monitoring of lava activity to ensure the public’s safety. UAS technology is uniquely suited to provide invaluable emergency response and scientific data together, while allowing the UAS operators, volcanologists, and emergency response teams to remain a safe distance from the volcanic hazards.

Currently, the active lava flow at Kīlauea’s fissure 8 has stopped, seismic activity at the summit has dramatically decreased, and volcanic activity is limited now to seepage at the ocean entry. The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory continues to closely monitor Kīlauea for any sign of reactivation, and maintains visual surveillance of the volcano’s summit and lower East Rift Zone. Their diligence in volcano monitoring and data collection, and that of those who have aided them in their efforts, such as the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center AIM group, enhances public safety and produces highly valuable information that contributes to a better understanding of volcanic behavior and more effective hazard mitigation strategies.

Read more about the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, and view HVO’s videos and daily Kīlauea status reports. Learn more about the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center Aerial Imaging and Mapping group.

USGS personnel prepare for an unmanned aerial system take off
Providing situational awareness at night, Elizabeth Pendleton, Sandy Brosnahan, and Emily Sturdivant prepare for a UAS take-off. Photo credit: Chris Holmquist-Johnson, Fort Collins Science Center
A screen shows some parameters and icons for controlling the image captured, which is an eruption of lava and a long flow path.
A screen grab from the tablet used to fly the UAS. Fissure 8 is in the top left corner and the lava flow extends toward the ocean entry point.


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