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GPS actively monitoring Kilauea’s eruptions, lava flows

May 22, 2018  - By

GPS measurements are playing a key role in monitoring the erupting Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.

The floor of the Pu’u ‘O’o Crater started to collapse on April 30, following weeks of uplift and increasing lava levels within the cone and seismicity in the East Rift Zone. The eruptions began on May 3, when a magnitude 5 earthquake struck, causing further collapse of the crater.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) has monitored volcanic activity on the islands since 1912. The HVO is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is issuing continuous updates on Kilauea.

The HVO is closely monitoring the biggest fissures in what is known as the lower East Rift Zone. Geologists are onsite to track ongoing and new fissure activity and the advance of lava flows.

Kilauea eruption map as of 8 a.m. HST, May 21. Shaded purple areas indicate lava flows erupted in 1840, 1955, 1960 and 2014–2015. (Photo: USGS)

GPS stations monitor land movement of Kilauea. The Big Island’s most active volcano has erupted nearly continuously for more than three decades.

“Magma supplied to the Lower East Rift Zone was indicated by the northwest displacement of a GPS monitoring station,” the HVO said in its May 26 status update, but the station ceased movement a few hours later, telling a new story.

“Magma continues to be supplied to the Lower East Rift Zone; however, a GPS instrument near the Lower East Rift Zone is no longer moving, suggesting that the rift zone is no longer inflating in this area,” the HVO stated. “Elevated earthquake activity continues, but earthquake locations have not moved farther downrift in the past couple of days.”

Map of GPS stations installed near the Pu’u O’o vent on Kilauea. (Photo: USGS)

The GPS stations also monitor earthquake activity associated with the volcano. For instance, the May 4 magnitude 6.9 earthquake resulted in seaward motion of 1.5 feet along portions of Kīlauea’s south flank as measured by GPS stations across the volcano.

“Because active volcanoes make for unstable land, highly sensitive seismometers come in handy to track the frequency and strength of micro-earthquakes,” the HVO explained. “Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and another satellite-based technology, InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), map ground deformation (inflation and deflation) to within a fraction of an inch while tiltmeters measure slope from ground level. Together, these technologies help track lava’s movement underground and help pinpoint where it might break through the surface.”

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.