Ocean robots are helping researchers analyze Kilauea's ocean impacts

Ocean robots are helping researchers analyze Kilauea's ocean impacts
Updated: Aug. 1, 2018 at 8:41 PM HST
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PUNA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Scientists have started analyzing live data collected by two ocean robots on the impacts of lava flowing into the water off lower Puna.

The original plan was to have the Wave Gliders gather measurements close to the ocean entry, but once the unmanned vehicles arrived, they had to change course.

"Having 120 degree water 300 or 400 meters away from the lava makes your computers very hot, so we quickly decided that we were going to monitor the temperatures very closely and adjust," explained Billy Middleton, senior field engineer for Liquid Robotics.

The unmanned vehicles ended up conducting surveys along more than 6 miles of coastline, extending out as far as five miles, looking for heat signatures. Sensors collected an assortment of measurements, including water temperatures, as well as oxygen and sulfur dioxide levels.

Steven Colbert, who participated in the project, is an associate professor of Marine Science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He wanted to find out where the hot water was going. He was concerned that currents might be pushing it along the coastline, but he discovered that for the most part, the hot water was moving offshore.

"It creates this sort of conveyor belt where the muddy, hot water from the lava flows offshore and out to sea, and cooler water comes in and replaces it," explained Colbert.

The lava has already taken a toll on marine life in areas such as Pohoiki and Waiopae.

"That shoreline has all these tide pools and really restricted flow areas, so any fish, any honu in those areas, they may not realize what the situation is until it's too late," said Colbert.

A team at U.H. Hilo had been studying coral at the Waiopae tide pools in Kapoho for more than a decade before the flow moved in. Even though they lost the site, researchers now have an opportunity to see how long it takes for the ecosystem to recover.

"It will be a substantial period of time. It will take decades for a really coral-dominated reef to form again, but what's exciting is that succession in the marine life, it starts on day one," said John Burns, an assistant professor of Marine Science at U.H. Hilo.

The Wave Gliders are propelled by waves and powered by the sun. They returned to the company's test facility in Kawaihae after completing their mission.

"It's a unique opportunity to collect data on an event that's extremely rare and impactful to our local community and the environment that we live in," said Middleton.

Researchers from U.H. Hilo, M.I.T, and the U.S. Geological Survey are working with the company to study the data.

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