Volcano Watch: How are lava levels and volumes measured at the Kilauea summit lava lake?

  • Hawaiian Volcano Observatory's continuous, automated laser rangefinder on the western rim of Halemaʻumaʻu, as seen on March 22. The instrument is aimed near the western fissure’s inlet to the lava lake, and its data are transmitted to the HVO monitoring network at a rate of one measurement per second. (USGS photo by M. Patrick/Special to West Hawaii Today) (Public domain.)

Kilauea’s summit lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu is approaching its five-month anniversary on Thursday, May 20, while the water lake that occupied the crater for the previous seventeen months seems like a distant memory.

Some similarities still remain and USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists continue to use the same techniques developed to study the rate of water rise within the crater. The thoroughly tested method of determining the depth of the water lake was immediately adapted to the growing lava lake when the eruption started on Dec. 20, 2020.


Within minutes of arriving at the crater rim — and less than two hours after the eruption onset — the first HVO field crew used a handheld, high-precision laser rangefinder to measure the vertical distance to the surface of the new lava lake. A previous GPS survey at this site, which was used for measurements of the water lake, identified the elevation on the crater rim to within a yard.

By subtracting the vertical distance to the lake surface, HVO scientists determined that the lava lake was already 33 feet deeper than the water lake had ever been!

A similar measurement technique had first been used to determine the distance to the surface of the 2008 – 2018 Halemaʻumaʻu lava lake. However, it was not possible to calculate precise volumes because the shape of the crater was not well known. In 2019, shortly after the 2018 collapse of Halemaʻumaʻu, an extremely accurate “map” — called a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) — was created using a survey technique called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).

Precise measurements of the lava lake surface elevation are combined with the detailed elevation model of the pre-lake topography to calculate the volume between the two surfaces using specialized computer software. The initial eruption volume measurement made on Dec. 20 yielded a lava volume of approximately 400 million gallons. The lava erupted in less than two hours was enough to fill 600 Olympic swimming pools at a rate of 5 per minute or 200 cubic meters per second.

HVO field crews make these manual measurements of the lava level across the entire lava lake surface. In mid-January, a continuous, automated laser rangefinder was added to HVO’s monitoring capability. This instrument on the western crater rim transmits one data point per second back to HVO, tracking both short- and long-term fluctuations in the lava level.

One complication with the new instrument, however, was that its laser beam could only be aimed at one point. Field crews knew that the surface of the lava lake was not completely flat, and accordingly they would average measurements from various points on the surface to obtain a representative elevation value. The continuous rangefinder has been aimed near the inlet from the western fissure, where the lava lake is slightly bulged, and therefore its elevation values are slightly higher than those measured elsewhere on the surface.

To mitigate this complication, when HVO scientists calculate lava volumes from the continuous rangefinder measurements, a correction is applied. Three-dimensional models of the lava lake surface, constructed from DEMs created using helicopter overflight photos, have shown that the elevation difference between the inlet area and the average surface has been approximately 10 feet whenever the lava level is steadily rising, so this value is used for the correction.

Long-term analysis of the lava volumes is further complicated by short-term elevation drops associated with magma chamber deflation-inflation (DI) events, since they suggest negative volume changes. At these times, HVO field crews have observed that the western fissure is still effusing new lava, but at a slower rate.

Most of the elevation drop near the vent can be attributed to the bulge evening out as input diminishes. Considering this, HVO’s algorithm for calculating the lava volumes — and derived effusion rates — is built to ignore periods when the lava level drops.

Recent calculations using these techniques have shown that the eruption has produced a total of 11 billion gallons of lava. In recent weeks the effusion rate from the western fissure has averaged around 132 gallons per second. This rate is even lower than that in the later years of the Puʻuʻōʻō eruption on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone. Continued monitoring of the lava levels within Halemaʻumaʻu may reveal any significant changes in the character of volcanic activity at Kilauea’s summit.

Visit https://www.usgs.gov/observatories/hawaiian-volcano-observatory 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 is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea Volcano is erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is at WATCH (https://www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/volcano-hazards/about-alert-levels). Kilauea updates are issued daily.

Lava activity is confined to Halemaʻumaʻu with lava erupting from a vent on the northwest side of the crater. Laser rangefinder measurements May 13 indicate that the lava in the western (active) portion of the lake was 751 feet deep, with the eastern portion of the lava lake solidified at the surface. The summit tiltmeters recorded minor change over the past 24 hours. Sulfur dioxide emission rates measured on May 12 were 225 t/d. Seismicity remains stable, with elevated tremor. For the most current information on the eruption, see https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/current-eruption.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption from the current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.


This past week, about 130 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded below Mauna Loa; most of these occurred below the summit and upper-elevations at depths of less than about 5 miles. GPS measurements show low rates of deformation in the summit region over the past week. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at both the summit and at Sulphur Cone on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, see: https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/monitoring.

There was one event with three or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a magnitude-2.9 earthquake about 1 mile south of Pahala on May 7 at 8:33 p.m.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.