June 21: USGS Media Conference Call

Here’s my transcription of the June 21, 11AM USGS media conference call.

  • Host: Leslie Gordon, USGS Public Affairs
  • Mike Zoeller, UHI Geologist
  • Matthew Foster, NWS meteorologist
USGS: “The USGS UAS (unoccupied aircraft system) team took this photograph of Halema‘uma‘u Crater from the Kīlauea Overlook on this morning. They are preparing for a flight to map further subsidence at the summit.” (Full-sized)

Update: Status quo at Fissure 8, LERZ, Summit. New “tidbit”: front of lava is sitting on ocean floor that was 60 meters deep. Also, using term “collapse explosion” for daily explosions, because not 100% clear whether explosion triggers collapse or vice versa. Tradewinds and showers through weekend.

Questions & answers: 

  1. Q: Possibility of new fissures opening, or if not, why not? Has seismicity in LERZ decreased? A: Not ruling it out, but magma has found a good conduit to Fissure 8, seems stable. Seismicity in LERZ “pretty quiet.”
  2. Q: Trump administration tightening rules on USGS speaking to reporters; will that impact our communications? 

Leslie Gordon, USGS Public Affairs: That will not affect what we’re doing here at Kilauea. I think the department realizes that this is an urgent situation. We have people’s livelihoods endangered. People have lost their homes and businesses. And so we— it will not affect what we’re doing here regarding Kilauea Volcano.

3. Q: Do you think it’s safe local residents to view lava if they’re outside mandatory evacuation zone?  A: Not our call. It’s up to Hawaii County.
4. Q: What’s process for naming fissure 8? A: Hawaiian elders, community, Board on Geographic Names decide when and what to call places in Hawaii.
5. Q: Will delta collapse? How far out? A: Can’t rule out collapse, but it’s on fairly stable slope so far; 100-200 meters from where it is now the slope steepens. [Didn’t say what would happen there, but I think implication is that it will be less stable and more collapse-prone.]

Full Transcript

Mike Zoeller, geologist at Center for Study of Active Volcanoes, UHI:

The eruption on the Lower East Rift Zone continues. Fissure #8 continues producing lava fountains that are reaching 50-55 meters [164-180 feet] tall at this time. These lava fountains are feeding channels that travel 13 kilometers [8 miles] to the ocean. Along the course of these 13 kilometers, there are no overflows threatening nearby communities at this time. At the ocean entry at Kapoho, the lava delta is about 370 acres in size as of yesterday [June 20].

An interesting tidbit for today is that some analysis of the [bathymetry?] data in the area of the ocean entry that the lava delta has reached areas where the water was originally up to 60 meters deep. And that is indicative of the thickness of the flow as it reaches those depths: 60 meters.

Weak activity continues at Fissures 6, 16 and 18, but none of these are feeding significant flows at this time.

At the summit of the volcano, there has been no collapse explosion in the past 24 hours. The last was 4:22am on Wednesday [June 20]. However, earthquakes continue at this time at a rate that, based on past behavior, would suggest that another collapse explosion may happen in the short term. [It occurred at 1:13pm, June 21.]

We’re using this new terminology, “collapse explosion” for these events at the summit, because they are really a mixture of different processes going on. We’re not 100% sure whether the explosion triggers the collapse or vice versa. So, to cover our bases, we’re referring to them as “collapse explosions” at this time. That’s it for the update.

Matthew Foster, meteorologist, NWS

[Summary: today, tradewinds 10-20 mph, from east and/or northeast. Friday through weekend, showers plus tradewinds, then the trades will taper off early next week.]

Questions & Answers (supposed to ask one question at a time, BUUUT the Man With Five Billion Questions is back…) 

Q: I’m wondering if there’s been any indications or possibility of new fissures opening up anywhere? For so long, there were new fissures opening almost daily, you know, there was earthquake activity that seems to have subsided. So, if there’s not that possibility, or if doesn’t seem like that’s happened, can you explain the mechanisms about why that may not be happening anymore? Is the lava flowing directly to Fissure 8, and it’s kind of stabilized, and there’s no chance for it to spread? Or is there still a possibility for new fissures to open up?

Mike: I think you’ve pretty much answered your own question pretty well right there. Because while we can’t totally rule out the possibility that new fissures might open up, and we’re consistently monitoring areas that could possibly happen, yes, it does look like the supply of lava to Fissure 8 has pretty much stabilized. The magma in the dike in the rift zone has found a very nice conduit to Fissure 8, and over the course of the past couple weeks, it has continued at a pretty much steady rate, and right now we see no real changes to that rate.

Followup: Thank you. Can I just follow up really quickly? Has there been any earthquake in the Lower East Rift Zone recently? 

Mike: I am not a seismologist, but having been out there a bunch of times, I haven’t felt any earthquakes, and there hasn’t been— it sounds like from the seismologist side that it has been pretty quiet seismically down there.

Q: There’s an LA Times story saying the Trump administration is tightening rules for USGS scientists talking to reporters. Is that going to impact these briefings, or any of our interactions that we have with USGS?

Leslie Gordon, USGS: That will not affect what we’re doing here at Kilauea. I think the department realizes that this is an urgent situation. We have people’s livelihoods endangered. People have lost their homes and businesses. And so we— it will not affect what we’re doing here regarding Kilauea Volcano.

Q: Know you can’t advise about public viewing area. But, given the stability of the flow at this point, do you feel it’s safe for residents in the area not directly in the disaster zone or in mandatory evacuation zones to be in that area?

Mike: Unfortunately, that’s not our call to make. That’s the County of Hawaii’s decision. They might ask our input when a final decision is made about that, but we can’t really say in black and white whether it’s safe or unsafe.

Q: I know it’s been addressed, but… can you [explain] that process and why there hasn’t been a name for fissure 8, and what you do to come up with one. [Maybe this is why yesterday at 11:58 — after this call ended— USGS Volcanoes posted that “What’s in a name?” essay.]

Mike: My understanding of the process for giving those final Hawaiian names is that usually there’s a gathering of Kapuna Hawaiian elders who eventually make the decision. I think that was done in 1983 with Pu’u O’o. So at some point in time,  an event like that might take place among the Hawaiian community on the island to make a decision like that. USGS generally do not get involved in the naming convention decisions.

Leslie: I would only add that we name things like Fissure 8 or Fissure 16 simply out of convenience so we can talk to each other and know what we’re talking about. But those are just temporary. informal scientific chatter, chitchat. Formal names do— there is a committee, the Board on Geographic Names, and names are decided formally. And like Mike said, it’s usually the Hawaiian local community that makes those decisions or recommendations.

Followup: So there’s no process to do that? I mean, that must be triggered to follow that process to name Fissure 8.

Leslie: Well, there is a process, through the Board on Geographic Names. I think it’s up to local communities to initiate it.

Q: So you were talking about the delta and the depth of the water earlier. I’m not very familiar with the area around Kapoho, but generally speaking, when you get offshore off the Big Island, it goes down pretty deep pretty quickly. [it does?] Is there a point at which lava is going to reach that shelf, and then start to— what would happen at that point? Would it just go down into the ocean, or would it build a lid out and over, that would be a collapsible event?  Basically what I’m getting at is there going to be a shelf that at some point could collapse in the Kapoho or Vacationland area?

Mike: We can’t totally rule out the possibility of a delta collapse, because yes, it is sitting on fairly steep slope the further you get away from the original shoreline. Having looked at the bathymetry data myself, I can say that about a hundred to two hundred meters beyond the edge of the delta, there’s an even sharper break in slope where it starts to dive off a little more. So it does look like the majority of the current delta sits on a more stable and slightly lesser-sloping part of the ocean floor slope. It is still of course possible that it could collapse, and that’s why everybody down in that area has to be aware of the hazards relating to delta collapses.