Volcano Watch: Students used science to monitor eruption air

  • Students from the Teaching Through Technology (T3) Alliance, University of Hawaii Hilo Upward Bound summer program, install an air-quality monitoring station outside the Dragon’s Eye Learning Center on Papaya Farms Road. (Adam Low, T3 Alliance/Courtesy Photo)
  • Teaching Through Technology (T3) Alliance students in the University of Hawaii Hilo Upward Bound summer program install a large display showing measurements from their air-quality monitoring station outside the Pahoa Community Center, which was used as a temporary shelter for displaced residents from Kilauea Volcano’s 2018 eruption. (Adam Low, T3 Alliance/Courtesy Photo)

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — During the 2018 eruption of Kilauea Volcano, when fissures erupted and lava flowed in the lower East Rift Zone (LERZ), many Puna residents were displaced from their homes. We, as a community, watched from the sidelines as the eruption went on, helpless in averting the course of nature.

Although the 2018 event was profound, residents not in the eruption’s path had to tend to their daily duties. People still went to work, and students still went to school.


In the middle of this, only a few weeks after joining the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff, I met a group of enthusiastic high school students from Keaau, Hilo, Honokaa, Konawaena, and Kealakehe. They were enrolled in an Upward Bound summer program at the University of Hawaii Hilo, led by instructor Adam Low. The program, Teaching Through Technology (T3), was aimed at teaching students Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and discovering how STEM can help address societal and environmental concerns.

During the program, the students became familiar with simple sensors and an inexpensive credit-card sized computer called a Raspberry Pi. One of their early projects involved attaching a camera to the Raspberry Pi and creating a “photo booth” at an incoming freshmen orientation event. The students coded their own software so that when a photo was taken, the computer would send the image to the subject’s email address.

Empowered with their newly minted skillsets, the students decided to apply their classroom activities beyond academic learning and into a more practical and needed application.

As lava erupted from fissures in Leilani Estates on Kilauea’s LERZ, so did noxious gases. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is an extremely irritating gas that is released from shallow or erupting lava. This gas reacts in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid droplets, which can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.

The Hawaii State Department of Health (HDOH), as well as other agencies, monitor SO2 gas and particulate matter (PM) emitted from Kilauea. These data are provided in near-real time to the public via the HDOH website (https://air.doh.hawaii.gov/home/map).

About half of the students were either directly impacted, or related to someone directly impacted, by Kilauea’s LERZ eruption. The students decided that they could help their communities by deploying air-quality sensors. They put together a proposal and submitted it to the University of Hawaii Hilo Upward Bound director, Len Woods, for funding. The proposal outlined their mission and the equipment needed.

With funding in hand, the students built and deployed six air-quality monitoring stations using a PLANTOWER PMS5003 sensor for particulates and a SPEC GDS-SO2 968-038 sensor for ambient temperature, humidity, and SO2 concentration. They installed the stations in communal hubs, such as the Dragon’s Eye Learning Center on Papaya Farms Road, the Volcano School of Arts &Sciences in Volcano Village, the Ka‘u Coffee Mill in Pahala, and the evacuation shelters at the Keaau Armory and Pahoa Community Center.

Another station was co-located with a HDOH air-quality station at Rainbow Falls in Hilo for ground-truthing. They programed a screen display to show the level of ambient temperature, humidity, particulates, and SO2 at each site, and created a website that showed real-time readings from their monitoring stations.

At Kilauea Volcano’s summit, episodic collapses within the caldera were producing unprecedented levels of seismic activity. So, the students also installed a Raspberry Shake, which is a small seismic sensor connected to a Raspberry Pi, at the Volcano School of Arts &Sciences to monitor the hundreds of earthquakes happening daily. Data from the Raspberry Shake were streamed and publicly shared with a global community of citizen seismologists via a website (https://raspberryshake.net/stationview/#?net=AM&sta=RDCB).

Seventeen high school students did all of this. All it took was a bit of knowledge, support, and passion. I look forward to working alongside this next generation of colleagues and using science for the benefit of our communities.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting and its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at normal. For definitions of USGS Volcano Alert Levels, see https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_alerts.html.

Rates of deformation, gas release, and seismicity have not changed significantly over the past week.

Since early March, tiltmeters at Kilauea’s summit have recorded modest inflationary tilt. During the same time period, a GPS station within the 2018 collapse area has recorded approximately 3 inches of uplift. On Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone, GPS stations and tiltmeters continue to show motions consistent with refilling of the deep magmatic reservoir in the broad region between Puu Oo and Highway 130. This trend has been observed since the end of the 2018 eruption.

Sulfur dioxide emission rates on Kilauea’s ERZ and summit remain low. Gas measurements have not indicated significant shallowing of large volumes of magma, but HVO continues to closely monitor gas emissions at both the summit and ERZ of Kilauea for any changes.

One earthquake with three or more felt reports occurred in Hawaii this past week: a magnitude-2.7 quake 2 miles southwest of Volcano Village at 1.1 miles depth on May 11 at 6:51 p.m.

Hazards remain at the lower ERZ and summit of Kilauea. Residents and visitors near the 2018 fissures, lava flows, and summit collapse area should heed Hawaii County Civil Defense and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closures and warnings. Hawaii County Civil Defense advises that lava flows from the 2018 eruption are primarily on private property; people are asked to be respectful and to not enter or park on private property.

The USGS Volcano Alert level for Mauna Loa remains at normal.

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


Please 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. Call 967-8862 for weekly Kilauea updates. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

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