June 25: USGS Media Conference Call (Transcript)

[This is my own unofficial transcription. Audio file here. I’ve transcribed USGS, NPS, NWS speakers word-for-word, apart from “good morning/thank you” pleasantries. I’ve paraphrased/summarized questions from media.]

  • Leslie Gordon, Public Affairs, USGS
  • Mike Zoeller, Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, UHI
  • Jessica Ferracane, Public Info Officer, Hawaii Volcanoes NPS
  • John Bravender, meterologist, NWS

Here’s the 3-minute “highlight reel” edited digest:

Transcript of full 20-minute call:

Kilauea Update

Mike: The eruption on the Lower East Rift Zone continues. Fissure 8 is still feeding channelized lava flows that travel about 14 kilometers to the ocean. Along the course of those 14km, there are no significant overflows at this time threatening any nearby communities.

At the ocean entry, the lava delta has been advancing southwards at a slowing rate which is now less than 50 meters/day. At about this time last week, it had been advancing southward at about 200 meters/day, but that rate has slowed. The closest lava is now just over 1 kilometer away from the Ahulanui Beach Park.

There remains a possibility of some minor lava activity at the existing fissures northeast of fissure #8, but we haven’t been able to confirm any of this due to the gas conditions in that area.

At the summit of the volcano, the last collapse/explosion event occurred at 4:12 yesterday afternoon. Right now, rates of elevated seismicity in comparison to previous events suggest that another collapse/explosion may occur sometime soon.

Also a new update for today is that the Volcano Observatory notice to aircraft has been dropped from the RED level to the ORANGE level today, due to the reduced ash being produced by these collapse/explosion events. That’s it for the geology update.

Jessica Ferracane (NPS): [2:50] Today is still status quo. Parts of the park are open. Starting on Wednesday, the Kahuku Unit will be open again, Wednesday through Sunday. I went out there on Friday and hiked a new trail, the Pali O Kaʻeo Trail, which is about 2 miles, beautiful, koa/ʻōhiʻa woodland forest, and I highly encourage everybody to take a visit to Kahuku if you’re looking for a positive story about this closure and the ongoing activity, that would be great. Today is day 46 of the partial closure at the Kilauea area of the National Park, and the big news to share today is that we will be hosting— the National Park Service and the USGS— we’ll be hosting a community meeting this Thursday June 28 at the Cooper Center at 6:30pm. This is— we’re hoping that Volcano Village residents — they are the intended audience for this meeting. And this meeting will be held to discuss the ongoing closure, what’s going on in the park, and what’s going on with the summit activity of Kilauea. And that is all I have.

John Bravender (NWS): [4:20] Weather-wise, tradewinds, quite breezy right now, will be continuing for the next several days, to Thursday at least, and then weakening as we get into the weekend but still remaining out of the northeast. There is an area of showery clouds offshore to the northeast that’ll be moving in tonight. Late evening through Tuesday morning, we’ll see some more widespread rain. But other than that, just on and off cold tradewind showers through the week.

Question & Answer session

Q: What are SO2 levels in LERZ region and how do you stay safe?
Mike: We just had our weekly status meeting, and during that status meeting it was reported that the SO2 levels had peaked last week around 25,000 tons per day coming out of the Lower East Rift Zone. As for our personal protection, we have half-face respirators that we always have around our necks when we’re in the field, and they’re ready to put on at any time in case the SO2 levels reach such a level that we have to use them. We also wear these gas badges that will beep if the SO2 level sneaks up on us and we didn’t realize that it was getting higher. Although usually we can smell it a little bit, and we have pretty good knowledge of when we need them even beforehand. And of course, if it gets so high we’ll just leave the area because the masks that we wear, while useful, it’s always advisable to get out if the SO2 levels reach such a level.

Q: Status of Jaggar Museum and whether you have any plans to relocate?
Jessica: It’s really too early to tell. We haven’t even been able to do a professional assessment of the structure, so… yeah. Too early to tell. And that’s all I have about that. We don’t know if we’ll be going back to it. We don’t know the actual condition of the building. So. I hope that answers your question adequately.

Q: How much danger from those slow-moving lava channel spillovers, and how hard are they to monitor?
Mike: Yes, so far, all of those spillovers have moved at a slow rate, because they’re generally caused by small-scale failures at the top of the levees closest to the channel. In historical eruptions in the past, there have been larger failures of the channel levees observed, so we’re always on the watch to make sure that those don’t happen, or if they do that we catch it and we know to inform Hawaii County Civil Defense if necessary. We’re constantly visiting the north margins of the channel in upper parts of the channel such as in Leilani Estates subdivision, as well as around the Pohoiki Rd/Highway 132 intersection. That’s one of most useful spots for observing the channel levees to see if any of those overflows are happening. Also, down closer to Kapoho, we have a perched vantage point at a cinder quarry that we’re using to get a view up-channel, especially at night, where we can potentially see more overflows. So, even though we can’t visit a lot of the channel on the ground, from those vantage points we can see quite a bit of it from a distance. And of course we have our daily helicopter flights that also provide us an opportunity to see.

Q: How long does SO2 hang around the LERZ area, and when the tradewinds die down, does the risk to people go up?
John: When the winds do die off, then we do see increases, not just as the direction turns affecting different areas. But it does build up more. Like you said, the tradewinds will normally clear it away and mix it out from the immediate area. And with those weakened, it does build up. As far as the impacts from that, I’m not too sure about that side of things, other than hearing reports that some of the air quality sensors do get much higher during those weak tradewind days.
Followup: I guess… what I’m asking is, when the winds do die down, are populated areas being affected?
John: Yes, that’s one of the big concerns. I know Hawaii County itself has, as far as winds turning easterly or southeasterly in particular, spreading any of the Lower East Rift Zone emissions toward Pahoa and the shelters there. That’s certainly a concern. On the flip side, there’s some parts of Leilani Estates, for example, that are directly downstream from some of the emissions, and people can’t go back there because of the poor air quality. So it would be during the non-tradewind flows that other people might be able to make it in to move stuff out of houses or things like that. So, as you can imagine, which area is impacted by any of these emissions are definitely directly tied to the wind direction and the windspeed. 
Followup: If the tradewinds are generally taking the gases towards Kona, what are the levels like there, and is there any concern of longterm exposure?
John: I don’t know about the concerns of longterm exposure, but I know this has been a significant problem along the Ka’u district and over to the Kona side as well for the past several years of being downwind of, especially, what used to be the big emission source at the summit. There has been exposure to this. Offhand, I don’t know specifics [Dammit, Jim, he’s a meteorologist not a health official.] but I’ve heard people even talk about problems with agriculture areas. Even fences corroding faster because of some of the emissions. And then— you mentioned about Kona being downwind [IT’S NOT]— with the way the wind flows around the Big Island, it creates kind of an eddy that takes emissions to the southwest across the Ka’u desert, and then will at times wrap around and bring it back into the Kona coast. So it’s a pretty significant area, the leeward Big Island, affected during a normal tradewind pattern.
Leslie: For the longterm health effects, you might try contacting the State of Hawaii Health Department; they’ll probably have information on that.

Q: What’s the highest speed of the lava river USGS has measured so far? Don’t know average speed, but what’s top?
Mike: I believe the highest speed that we’ve seen so far has been 31kph. Usually the average is about 25, but I think the absolute maximum we’ve seen is 31… Leslie is correcting me. She’s apparently heard 35kph. So there you go.
Q: Do you know when that was?
Mike: I know I saw 25kph over the weekend, and Leslie saw the 35 Friday night [Jun 22].

Q: Are you still using drone technology to map out lava flows?
Mike: Correct. We do have a drone team out there. They’re usually out there at night, because that’s the hardest time for us to get eyes on everything. So we usually have a drone team out there at night alongside the USGS crew who’s out there overnight.

Q: Water quality and impacts of lava flow entering ocean on marine life/ecosystem? How far out does it extend?
Leslie Gordon: We don’t have the expertise for that, but contact Frank Sansone, UHI; his research deals with that.