Volcano Monitoring Techniques
Volcano Monitoring Techniques
Measuring the temperature of lava is one method used to monitor volcanic
eruptions. Photograph by R.L. Christiansen, U.S. Geological Survey,
January 9, 1973.
Lesson at a glance, Key Concepts, and Lesson Outcomes are available by
Geologists have developed several methods to monitor changes in
active volcanoes. These methods allow geologists to forecast and, in
some cases, predict, the onset of an eruption. A forecast indicates that
the volcano is "ready" to erupt. A prediction states that a volcano will
erupt within a specified number of hours or days (Wright and Pierson,
1992). Several methods developed by and currently used at the Hawaiian
Volcano Observatory are introduced in the following paragraphs. The
provide additional description and
Tilt is a measure of the slope angle of the flank of the volcano.
Prior to any change in the volcano, a balance is reached between the
outward (mostly upward) pressure of the magma in the reservoir beneath
the summit and the downward weight of the rocks above the magma
reservoir. Tilt measurements will remain constant.
As magma accumulates in the shallow reservoir beneath Kilauea
volcano, it exerts pressure on the overlying and surrounding rocks. The
pressure causes the summit of the volcano to move upward and outward to
accommodate the greater volume of magma. As magma accumulates in the
summit reservoir, it causes the slope (i.e., tilt) of the volcano's
flanks to increase. Geologists can use precise measurements at specific
locations over a period of time to detect movements caused by magma. The
number and distribution of earthquakes also indicates changes in the
If magma leaves the summit reservoir and moves into a rift zone, the
summit will deflate and the tilt decreases. Rapid summit deflation is
often a precursor to a flank eruption and, therefore, a useful monitoring
These graphs show how the number of earthquakes and the amount of tilt
changed over the course of events outlined above. Modified from Unger
In simplest terms, tiltmeters work like a carpenter's level by measuring
changes in slope.
During stable conditions, tilt at the summit changes very slowly or not
As magma fills the reservoir beneath the summit, the volcano
inflates and the tilt of the flanks increases, sometimes very rapidly.
As magma leaves the reservoir beneath the summit, the volcano deflates
and the tilt of the flanks decreases. All slopes are exaggerated.
Modified from Bullard (1984).
The tiltmeters used by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are very
sensitive because they must measure changes in slope as small as one part
per million. A slope change of one part per million is equivalent to
raising the end of a board one kilometer long only one millimeter. That's
roughly equivalent to lifting a board six city-blocks long only the
height of a dime at one end! Photograph of a tiltmeter courtesy of U.S.
Electronic distance measurement (EDM) uses a laser light source to
measure the distance between two locations. For example, if a new batch
of magma arrives at the summit of Kilauea, the volcano expands, and the
distance between two points increases. EDM is also used across rift
zones or in areas with active faults. In the photo EDM is being used to
measure the Puu Oo cone. Photograph by J.D. Griggs, U.S. Geological
Survey, May 5, 1986.
This photo shows the tilt record for the onset of a flank eruption in
November of 1979. Tilt near the summit changed 5 microradians in about
12 hours. Photograph by Robert Decker, U.S. Geological Survey.
Standard leveling surveys are also used to determine changes in
horizontal and vertical distances. Geologists use permanent markers,
called benchmarks, as reference points. As magma intrudes beneath an
area, the benchmarks move upward and outward. Photograph courtesy of
U.S. Geological Survey.
In many cases, tilt is used in conjunction with EDM and leveling surveys
to constrain the location, and in some cases size, of an intrusion.
A new tool, called Global Position System or GPS, is being used to
measure the changes in a volcano prior to or during eruptions. GPS uses
a system of orbiting satellites, receivers on the volcano, and
computers. The position of the satellites are known to within a few
meters. They send signals which include the time the signal left the
satellite. The receivers note the time that the signal arrived. The
time it takes for the signal to travel from satellite to receiver can
then be determined. Knowing the travel time and the velocity of the
signal (the speed of light) the distance between the satellite and
receiver can be determined. GPS can measure vertical and horizontal
changes between different GPS receivers down to about one third of an
inch (1 cm). By visiting the same locations every few months
volcanologists can determine where and how much the volcano is changing
shape. This photo shows a GPS receiver on the south flank of Kilauea.
Note the benchmark below the receiver. Photo by Steve Mattox, March
The frequency, magnitude, location, and type of earthquakes
associated with active volcanoes are used for monitoring and forecasting
eruptions. For example, on a typical day, Kilauea has 200 low-magnitude
earthquakes that are too small to be felt. In contrast, just prior to
the onset of an eruption, hundreds of earthquakes are recorded and dozens
are felt near the epicenter. This photo shows the earthquake record for
the onset of a flank eruption in November of 1979. Photograph by Robert
Decker, U.S. Geological Survey.
The distribution of earthquakes provides information about magma pathways
and the structure of volcanoes. The red dots show earthquakes associated
with magma movement. They define the east and southwest rifts of
Kilauea. The blue dots show earthquakes associated the sliding of the
south flank of Kilauea. Photograph courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.
In 1974, one year before the eruption of
number of earthquakes increased deep beneath the volcano. Throughout the
year, the number of earthquakes continued to increase and migrated
towards the surface (Koyanagi and others, 1975). Photograph by J.D.
Griggs, U.S. Geological Survey, December 10, 1986.
OTHER SEISMICITY (EARTHQUAKES)
Magma movement and the onset of an eruption produce a distinctive
pattern called harmonic tremor. Seismologist must sort through the
records of hundreds of earthquakes and determine which are related to the
volcano and which were caused by man-induced or natural forces.
Seismometers, the instruments that detect the earthquakes, are set up at
numerous locations on the volcano. The information about the earthquakes
is sent by radio waves to the Volcano Observatory. This seismometer is
on the island of Pagan. Photograph by Robert Koyanagi, U.S. Geological
Survey, March 1983.
Gas samples are collected from fumaroles, like those near
and from active vents. The composition of the gas or a change in the rate of
gas emission provides additional information on what is happening inside
the volcano. For example, an increase in the ratio of carbon to sulfur
can be used to indicate the arrival of a new batch of magma at the summit
reservoir. Shortly before the onset of the Puu Oo eruption, the amount
of hydrogen gas at the summit of Kilauea Volcano increased significantly
(McGee and others, 1987). This photo shows gas geochemists collecting a
sample. Photograph by J.D. Griggs, U.S. Geological Survey, March 9,
The amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) released by the volcano can be
measured indirectly by a correlation spectrometer or COSPEC. The
spectrometer compares the light coming through the volcanic plume to a
known spectra of sulfur dioxide. The flux of sulfur dioxide (SO2)
nearly doubled after the 1983 eruption began (Greenland and others,
1985). The large amount of sulfur dioxide released by Kilauea each day
causes numerous problems including adverse health effects( headaches,
fatigue, respiratory difficulties),
vog (volcanic smog), and acid rain. Photo shows volcanologist measuring
sulfur dioxide plume at Puu Oo vent. Photograph by J.B. Stokes, U.S.
The geologic study of volcanoes provides information about the potential
hazards during eruptions and the chemical and physical processes
associated with eruptions. This photo shows geologists collecting a lava
sample through a skylight. Photograph by T.N. Moulds, U.S. Geological
Survey, March 9, 1990.
Geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano
Observatory have been monitoring the
of Kilauea since 1983. The geologists
monitor changes at the active vents and ocean entries, collect lava and
tephra samples, map the distribution of vents and lava flows, measure
lava temperatures, conduct research, and provide information to the
public and the press, and advise local civil defense authorities. In
this photo, a volcanologist is preparing a time lapse camera to make
observations of the Puu Oo lava pond. Photograph by J.D. Griggs, U.S.
Geological Survey, October 11, 1991.
Working on Hawaiian Volcanoes
provides more information on the methods used to monitor active
Volcano Watch, a
publication of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory,
has numerous articles about monitoring volcanoes.
The U.S. Geological Survey's
Cascade Volcano Observatory
also describes the
methods used to monitor volcanoes.
for a list of activities and teaching suggestions about Volcano Monitoring
for a list of references about Volcano Monitoring