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Response Activities, Equipment Repair, and Hardening from the Kīlauea eruption

The 2018 Kīlauea Summit and lower East Rift Zone eruption resulted in 3.5 months of lava discharge, destroying more than 724 structures but fortunately no fatalities.

Nighttime photo of scientists collecting data during a volcanic eruption, backlit by lava
USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) scientists monitor the Halema‘uma‘u lava lake using state-of-the-art instruments acquired through the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019. 

This eruption was unprecedented, allowing the first opportunity for the volcano science community to directly observe caldera formation (in the modern instrumented era) because of magma withdrawal from the summit region and its subsequent eruption downslope in the lower East Rift Zone.  Caldera formation was observed through the thousands of M5.3 earthquakes recorded, the GPS instruments in the summit region, and remote sensing technologies (satellites, airborne lidar, and unoccupied aerial systems (UAS)) following the event.  Overall, Halemʻumaʻu pit crater within Kīlauea’s summit caldera was widened by a factor of 2 and deepened by a factor of 3.  

HVO monitoring network restoration and hardening:  Because of the frequency of volcanic eruptions in Hawaiʽi, and Kīlauea’s designation as a very high threat volcano, restoring all monitoring stations damaged or lost during the 2018 Kīlauea summit and lower East Rift Zone eruption and hardening the summit monitoring stations to eliminate single points of failure was essential. P.L. 116-20 funding has been used to create redundant and independent data paths from summit instruments directly to HVO and redundant data paths off island to enable other US observatories to assist HVO in times of eruption crisis. Monitoring network modernization to accomplish network restoration and hardening includes upgraded gravimeters, seismometers, digitizers, GPS/GNSS, multi-gas sensors, laser rangefinders, visual and thermal cameras, tephra/ash analyzers, optical and infrared microscopes, UAS systems and ancillaries. Data from these instruments allowed HVO to detect and respond to the 2020-2021 summit eruption of Kīlauea, assess volcanic activity, and inform partners at Hawaiʽi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO), Hawaiʽi County Civil Defense and Hawaiʽi Emergency Management Agency. 

Monitoring and Analysis Instrumentation Advances

UAS in flight at the Kilauea volcano
UAS in flight at the Kilauea volcano

UAS as a monitoring and observing platform before, during and after eruption: Multiple eruption points in the lower East Rift Zone and explosive events at Kīlauea’s summit happened simultaneously. The use of UAS in addition to helicopter supported reconnaissance flights flown daily helped to provide continuous situational awareness for the response community.  Examples of UAS data collection include gas sampling, aerial photography and photogrammetry, radar distance measurements to lava lakes and lava flow fronts, lava flow velocities, lidar, thermal and multispectral measurements, and even crater lake sample collection.  During the 2018 Kīlauea eruption, UAS teams surged to the response from multiple programs and missions within USGS and the Dept. of Interior Aviation Services Office.  At the height of the eruption, three shifts of UAS flights were conducted daily.  Live video streaming from UAS into HVO, Hawaiʽi County Civil Defense (HCCD), and Hawaiʽi Emergency Management Agency (HI EMA) during the response maintained critical situational awareness for areas under threat and impacted by lava flows, ash fall and toxic gas emissions, and allowed time for critical decision making that enabled effective hazard mitigation measures by land-managers and emergency responders. In addition, there was at least one instance where a local inhabitant followed a UAS to safety, at nighttime under poor visibility conditions, when their property was about to be surrounded by lava flows.  UAS (including hexacopters, quadcopters and larger fixed-wing platforms) are significant volcano monitoring tools because they can reduce personnel safety risks during an eruption. 

P.L. 116-20 funding has allowed HVO to acquire two new UAS that are permanently stationed at HVO and ready for a variety of monitoring tasks and pre- and post-eruption observations.  Funding is also being used to provide pilot training opportunities, including nine newly licensed pilots at HVO and across the Volcano Science Center, for a total of 13 within the Volcano Hazards Program. 

map of Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift Zone
This map of Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift Zone, created by USGS Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysts, shows the extent of the 2018 lava flows (pink), which covered an area of about 35.5 sq km (13.7 sq mi) and added about 875 acres of new land to East Hawai‘i. There has been no lava flow expansion since August 9, 2018. Minor activity within the fissure 8 cone continued into early September 2018 but did not expand the flow margins. Shaded purple areas depict lava flows erupted in 1840, 1955, 1960, and 2014-2015. 



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