July 9: USGS Morning Conference Call

Oh good. Tina Neal herself dropped by today (I think she did some of the early ones, but she’s been understandably busy).

Here’s my transcript of this morning’s 11AM media briefing with USGS, NHS, NPS.

  • Tina Neal, USGS, Scientist-in-Charge of HVO
  • John Bradenburg, NHS
  • Jessica Ferracane, Public Affairs, HVNP
  • Janet Babb, USGS/HVO

Tina Neal, HVO: Good morning, everyone. Just to give you an update on what’s going on at Kilauea Volcano. In the Lower East Rift Zone, the effusive eruption of lava continues with little significant change from the last few days. The Fissure 8 spatter cone continues to produce a pretty vigorous river of lava in an open channel that heads to the northeast and then turns southeast, then enters the ocean about 8 miles downflow.

One of the interesting things observed by our field crews during the overflight this morning is that the channel system in the lower portion of this lava flow where it ends up into the ocean has gone through some changes. And this is an interesting phenomenon, reorganization, that we’re trying to understand. It appears at times that the channel is very vigorous all the way to the ocean, and at other times it sort of diminishes and just becomes a broad, rubbly front. As of this morning, the channel was mostly on the southern side of the flow, and the margin of the flow is expanding a little bit to the south. So there’s some very interesting channel dynamics going on in this lava flow in the lower portion that really doesn’t [act??] its behavior as it spreads out and enters the ocean.

We’re still seeing a little bit of weak spattering at fissure 22, which is just to the northeast or downrift of Fissure 8. This has been intermittent for some time now. And I liken this to: the wound is still bleeding there. In other words, even though the main activity is coming out of Fissure 8, there’s still a little bit of magma that’s making it to the surface at Fissure 22 in just sort of intermittent Strombolian bursts. And one thought we have but have not yet been able to test is that maybe the lower end of the fissure system is still interacting a little bit with groundwater, causing this intermittent explosivity. But that’s just an idea we haven’t really tested.

So things are continuing in the Lower East Rift Zone. There’s still the same hazards from the lava flows and potential spillouts of the channel, still very high amounts of sulfur dioxide gas being measured and coming out of Fissure 8 and drifting downwind, and of course the ocean entry is still producing the very voluminous laze plume that is also a hazardous phenomenon. And I’d like— I hope we’re going to hear from John Bravender a little bit about the weather that this volcanic eruption is creating, which is really a remarkable aspect of the phenomenon.

Up at the summit of Kilauea Volcano, we continue to have these almost daily collapse/explosion events, we’re calling them. We had one this morning at 9:20 in the middle of our HVO staff meeting. It looked a lot like the ones we’ve been having now for a number of weeks. Just before the event, we had earthquake rates up there between 25 and 40 per hour and then, as is typical, after this event, we dropped to about 10 per hour. So it’s a period of seismic quiet occurring now. And we think we’re just moving right into the next cycle, which appears to show no sign of stopping.

SO2 emissions from the volcano’s summit have dropped to very low levels, pretty much background levels prior to the 2008 activity, really, up at the summit. So gas is not much of a hazard from the summit activity at this time, although the very voluminous Lower East Rift Zone SO2 plume does occasionally impact the summit of the volcano and cause very poor air quality. I think I’ll conclude with that.

John Bravender, NWS: Quickly we’ll touch base on winds first and then get to the interesting weather after that. Trade winds dropped a notch today, but it’s only briefly, and we’re not expecting much change in the windflow, [they’re] just not quite as strong as they have been, still spreading emissions, et cetera to the southwest, and then of course wrapping around affecting the Kona side. High pressure north of the state, subtropical ridge strengthens and rebuilds to our northeast, bringing winds up a notch tomorrow, and that’s continuing through the week. We might actually see another increase in windspeeds come this weekend as well, keeping trades on the breezy side. We are unstable over the islands, with an upper low off to the northwest of the state, and with the surge of moisture that had come in over the weekend, we had localized convection, localized heavy rain essentially being forced by the heat from the eruption. This is similar to but not quite as intense as the thunderstorms that we had last week at about this time. But it’s the same phenomenon, essentially. This is more localized to the Lower East Rift Zone area, but even with that, at a community rain gauge report from Leilani Estates, over 9 inches of rain in the past 24 hours. So, a report of 9 inches, report of 6 inches, and even a retired weather service employee living in Pahoa, over 5 1/2 inches in the past— just this morning. So this is a pretty significant rainfall over a very localized area. Luckily, the ground is very porous there, and not causing any problems for those areas that are still accessible. That’s it; I’ll be available for questions afterward.

Jessica Ferracane, NPS: Good morning, everybody. Today is Monday, July 9, status quo up at the summit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We are in day 60, six-zero, of our closure. Over the weekend — well, Friday the 6th, we had a fairly large sinkhole up on Highway 11, which, reminder, that is jurisdiction of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s the roadway here on the island. The sinkhole opened up right near the [????], Volcano Golf Course intersection on the shoulder, but the Hawaii Department of Transportation was able to get it repaired fairly quickly. We were down to one lane of traffic, but did not have to close the highway. So that is repaired today. I was over it myself this morning, and it’s definitely a noticeable big bump and dip, and steel plates are in place. Just a reminder for everybody to drive very slowly and carefully on 11. A reminder that there is no stopping except for emergency stopping on the shoulder, and that we continue to see cracking and fracturing in park roadways. And as Tina mentioned, at 9:20 this morning, a collapse/explosion event that occurred, definitely felt by us who were up at the summit at the Visitor Emergency Ops Center, as we broke out of an operations meeting. So that always makes thing an interesting morning for sure. And that’s all I have today.

Questions & Answers

Q: Can we have an update on the lava moving towards Ahalanui Warm Pond and Kua O Ka La Public Charter School?

Tina: I’m afraid I can’t give you the exact distance to the Warm Pond or the school at this time. I apologize. But overnight, the southern margin did move forward a couple hundred yards. So it’s moving very slowly. But obviously, that is a concern, and I know the County Civil Defense folks have asked us to keep careful track of that during our overflights, both the Warm Pond area and the school. We actually have a seismic and GPS and infrasound installation at the school that we’re also concerned about. So we’re watching it carefully as well, and if it looks like it’s past the point of being safe, we’re going to mount an expedition to retrieve our equipment. So I apologize, I don’t have those numbers exactly. We could find them for you if you need them.

[Discuss contacting her after call once they look up the numbers.] 

Q: So you were saying Fissure 8 was still emitting a high volume of SO2. Do you know what the current emission rates are? And given the very wet conditions, is there any concern about the SO2 combining with water and creating any other hazards?

Tina: Good questions. Certainly when the sulfur dioxide plume interacts with the water in the atmosphere and comes out as rain, that rain can be— is acidic. And we’ve seen the effects of that downwind of the Halema’uma’u lava lake for many years when it existed. So that likely is occurring, although we’re not out there collecting rainwater systematically, but I definitely would think in the downwind area from Fissure 8 there’s some acidic rain occurring.

Your other question was about emission rate values. And we had actually a long discussion about this, this morning at our staff meeting. The methods of calculating numbers of emission rates for sulfur dioxide are complicated, and they’re challenging in the current conditions where we have such high amounts coming out. These amounts tend to saturate our instruments, and we have to use some different techniques. In addition, we have trouble getting very accurate wind speeds in the area that we’re measuring. And the wind speed is a critical parameter in the arithmetic that goes on to come out with a flux, an emission rate. So we’ve seen numbers in the last few weeks, certainly upwards of 20 to 30,000 tons per day, in that range. I think right now we can confidently say several tens of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide per day, but we’re still haggling over the exact number.

I think two important points: One is the values are very high. We’re certainly seeing more SO2 coming out of this eruption than we saw coming out of the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea in the last some years. And it seems like there’s a trend of increasing values over the last, say, month. So those two things we know to be true. But I don’t want people to get too caught up in the exact numbers, because we’re still working on how to best conclude what the numbers are.

Q: What times/timespans were those rainfall totals mentioned in the NWS report? 

John: Sure. The two 24-hour rainfall totals we had were from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, CoCoRaHS, 9.22 inches [over 24 hours?] was [????] 8am Hawaii local time, and then the 6-inch report I think was at 7am local time [got times switched], and the phone call we got from the retired forecaster living out there, 5.66 inches. That was a 7-hour total ending at, I think it was about 9am or so.

Q: Could you describe again what’s causing that? 

John: Sure. The heat coming out of the lava is making the air mass really unstable. So if you picture a hot air balloon rising and floating, as long as the air in the balloon is warmer than the air around it, it’ll keep rising. And that’s what’s happening with this air, in these moist, [intense?] conditions, it hits the heat from the lava, heats up and rises. And as it rises, it cools, condenses, and forms the rain that we’re seeing. And it’s just localized to the specific area where it’s most unstable. And we don’t really know any good thresholds or mechanisms behind it, why sometimes it develops, and sometimes it doesn’t. We do know that the atmosphere stabilizing were developed into tradewind inversion [sorry, I’m sure that’s not what he said but I couldn’t decipher] that’ll help put a cap on how deep these showers can  get, and also, drier, low-level air coming in. Then there won’t be as much moisture feeding into this. That’s why we’re not seeing this all the time, but it’s cropping up part of the time. So we think after today, maybe tonight, the rain focused along the Lower East Rift Zone will dissipate. But… [something] back to a more typical tradewind pattern.

Q: Yet another person asks how many hours was the 9.22 inch rain gauge reading. Admittedly John Bravender is fairly hard to understand.]

[I can’t believe they had Tina Neal on the horn, but nearly every question boiled down to asking for simple numbers and/or talking about rain. Pick her brains, people!]