Ocean Drones to Monitor Kilauea Volcano

Credit: Liquid Robotics
Credit: Liquid Robotics

Published Jul 2, 2018 8:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

Kilauea, the volcano on Hawaii's Big Island that is currently in a high-activity phase, will now be monitored by ocean drones in real time. 

Liquid Robotics has deployed two Wave Gliders to capture live ocean data close to where lava is flowing into the ocean. Ocean drones have rarely been used to observe such volcanic activity, and they offer scientists new insights into the effects of the lava entering the ocean, the plume it creates and the interactions of the lava and seawater. 

Over the next three weeks, the Wave Gliders will operate a precise zig zag course, approximately 300 meters (984 feet) from the lava flow plume collecting subsurface, surface and atmospheric data. Working with researchers from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, the Wave Gliders host a wide assortment of sophisticated sensors to measure water temperatures, oxygen levels, pH levels, salinity, turbidity, conductivity and underwater acoustics.  

“The plume of hot, sediment-laden water generated by the lava flowing into the ocean spreads out, impacting surrounding ecosystems,” said Dr. Steve Colbert, University of Hawaii at Hilo. “We don’t know how far and how deep that plume extends, or how it changes with oceanographic conditions or changes in the flow of lava. The Wave Gliders provide us the opportunity to answer these important questions.” 

When the first Wave Glider arrived at the lava flow location, surface water temperatures measured above 120oF/49oC: conditions dangerous for humans, less so for ocean robots.

More than 650 homes have been destroyed by lava, and molten rock now covers over 6,000 acres of land. On May 11, the Captain of the Port Honolulu issued a Final Rule establishing a permanent Safety Zone for the navigable waters surrounding the entry of lava from Kilauea volcano into the Pacific Ocean. The Safety Zone encompasses all waters extending 300 meters (984 feet) in all directions around all entry points of lava flow into the ocean.

Long periods of explosive and effusive (lava-flow-dominated) activity have alternated at Kilauea for the past 2,500 years. Kilauea is a shield volcano located on the eastern slope of Mauna Loa Volcano on Hawaii. There is a lack of old exposed rock at Kilauea, which makes it difficult for geologists to piece together its complete eruption history. Only about 10 percent of Kilauea's surface consists of rock older than 1,000 years. The other 90 percent of the volcano's surface is covered by younger lava flows, and about 20 percent of those flows are less than 200 years old. 

Estimates for the age of Kilauea's first-erupted lavas continue to evolve, but current research indicates the first lava flows erupted onto the ocean floor between 210,000 and 280,000 years ago, and the volcano transitioned from its pre-shield to shield-building stage about 155,000 years ago.