Volcano Watch: What was that ship doing by the 2018 lava deltas?

  • NOAA photo

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship Rainier backdropped by Mount Baker, an active Cascade Range stratovolcano, in Washington. In September, the Rainier conducted a bathymetric survey along Hawaii Island’s Puna coast, where lava entered the ocean during Kilauea Volcano’s 2018 eruption.

In late September, East Hawaii residents with ocean views might have noticed an unusual ship — too small for a cruise ship, too big for a fishing boat — sailing just offshore of the 2018 lava deltas along the Puna coast. It also entered Hilo Harbor, where it deployed several smaller boats that canvassed the bay within the breakwall.

The ship — named Rainier — is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrographic survey vessel based out of Oregon. It is part of a fleet that surveys the bathymetry, or underwater topography, of coastal waters around the United States.


These surveys are used to update nautical charts and various digital products in support of marine commerce and transportation, as well as navigation safety. The ship also measures various properties of the ocean water column, such as salinity, and supports dive operations.

The Rainier, with a crew of about 50 — a mixture of uniformed NOAA officers and civilians — works primarily in Alaska, but special circumstances this year brought it to Hawaii. After spending time in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and elsewhere in the Hawaiian Islands, the Rainier arrived in waters around the Island of Hawaii.

Among other tasks, this leg of its journey provided a special opportunity to re-survey the lava deltas formed by Kilauea Volcano’s 2018 lower East Rift Zone eruption.

Because NOAA’s core mission is to maintain up-to-date nautical charts, the Puna coast became an important objective given the changes that occurred there in 2018. However, interest in the data goes beyond hydrography. Views of the submarine slopes help USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory volcanologists better understand ongoing processes that affect stability of the newly-formed lava delta in Kapoho Bay, along with other hazards along the new coastline.

An August 2018 survey by the exploration vessel Nautilus, operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust, provides a baseline to identify bathymetric changes during the past year.

The Rainier, like the Nautilus, surveys bathymetry using a multi-beam echosounder mounted to its hull. This system transmits acoustic waves in a fan along the beam of the ship, perpendicular to the ship’s length. As these waves reflect off the ocean floor and back to the ship, a highly-sensitive receiver measures the time that passed. Longer return times indicate greater distances between the ship and the ocean floor. The fan is narrow across-beam, which allows for detailed measurements, but wide along-beam (side to side), enabling surveys much wider than the ship itself.

Collecting millions of distance measurements allows for the construction of a submarine digital elevation model. By comparing the new digital elevation model from the Rainier with last year’s model from the Nautilus, it will be possible for volcanologists to see which parts of the submarine lava delta, if any, are subsiding.

Comparisons of recent satellite images with 2018 lava flow maps suggested some of the new coastline has already retreated by tens of meters (yards), so similar changes might be expected below the waves.

Full processing and publication of the new dataset will take some time. However, while the Rainier was anchored offshore and the smaller boats surveyed Hilo Harbor with their own multi-beam echosounders, several HVO staff were invited aboard the NOAA ship to see the preliminary Puna coast dataset.

The results were exciting: a high-quality digital elevation model allowed HVO’s volcanologists to spot various submarine features along the 2018 deltas, including a possible lava channel — now inactive, of course. Discussions with the ship’s crew identified several target areas for further bathymetric investigation, some of which the Rainier surveyed the next day.

HVO sincerely thanks the crew of the Rainier for their assistance in ongoing volcanic research in Hawaii. We are just starting to unravel the data and interpret its implications for lava delta hazards, and this process will undoubtedly improve volcanologists’ understanding of the forces at work below sea level.

Exciting collaborations such as this allow HVO staff to work with experts in different scientific fields using state-of-the-art tools that often fall outside the scope of routine volcano monitoring.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting and its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Normal (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_alerts.html). Updates for Kilauea are now issued monthly.

Kilauea deformation and seismicity showed no notable changes during the past week. Sulfur dioxide emission rates are low at the summit and below detection limits at Pu‘u ‘O‘o and the lower East Rift Zone.

The water pond at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u continues to slowly expand and deepen.

At or near the 2018 LERZ eruptive fissures, elevated ground temperatures and minor releases of gas (steam, tiny amounts of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide) persist.

These are typical post-eruption conditions and are expected to be long-term.

Hazards remain at the LERZ and summit of Kilauea. Closures and warnings in these areas should be heeded. The 2018 lava flows are primarily on private property; be respectful and do not enter or park on private property.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Advisory. This alert level does not mean an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption is certain.

This past week, about 85 small-magnitude earthquakes (nearly all less than M2.2) were detected beneath the upper elevations of Mauna Loa. Deformation measurements show continued summit inflation.

Volcanic gas emission and fumarole temperature readings at the recently updated monitoring site have stabilized and show no significant changes.

Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly. For more information about the status of the volcano, go to https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna_loa/status.html

Two earthquakes with three or more felt reports occurred in Hawaii this past week: a magnitude-3.2 quake 9 km (6 mi) northwest of Volcano at 2 km (1 mi) depth at 4:44 p.m. Oct. 14 and a magnitude-3.3 quake 17 km (11 mi) south of Leilani Estates at 40 km (25 mi) depth at 4:47 a.m. Oct. 11.

HVO continues to closely monitor Kilauea and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.


Visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/hvo_volcano_watch.html) is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

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