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USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program

17-16. Investigating lava flow dynamics and hazards on Kīlauea's Lower East Rift Zone

Effusive eruptions are common around the world and pose a hazard to populations and infrastructure. Recent examples include the 2014 lava flows from Fogo Volcano in Cape Verde that destroyed several villages, and the 2014 lava flows on Kīlauea that entered the town of Pāhoa but stalled before causing major damage. Despite this, our understanding of lava flow dynamics is not fully developed and we lack tools to precisely forecast their advance and evolution. Numerous intrinsic and extrinsic parameters have been shown to control lava flow emplacement, including effusion rate, rheology, and underlying topography. However, how the dynamics of eruptions and flow properties impact flow behavior, including flow advance rates and morphologic evolution, remains complex and challenging to quantify.

The 2018 Lower East Rift Zone (LERZ) eruption of Kīlauea provides a new opportunity to characterize and understand the evolution of active lava flows with an array of modern tools. In addition to sampling and ground-based observations equivalent to past eruptions, datasets available from the 2018 LERZ eruption include daily or twice daily flow maps, thermal orthomosaic imagery, digital elevation models acquired through time from unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and airborne lidar, nadir UAS video at regularly occupied sites along the active lava channel, time-lapse camera images, and ground-based video of flow features and dynamics. Corresponding geophysical and gas emissions monitoring data were also recorded in the LERZ.

The eruption presents an unprecedented research opportunity for several reasons. First, the sustained nature (over 2 months) of the Fissure 8 lava flow allowed repeated measurements over a long-time period, building a more robust dataset than is normally possible. Second, this eruption is perhaps the first time worldwide that UAS has been used in a prolonged eruption response scenario, and these efforts have produced some of the most detailed video and mapping of lava channel dynamics ever. Third, the high effusion rates of this eruption provide a rare example of high-quality benchmark data for lava flow modeling at flow rates of this scale.

We seek a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellow to focus on improving our understanding of lava flow dynamics and hazards using the wealth of data collected during the 2018 LERZ eruption. Some potential research questions could include:

In addition to these fundamental questions, it is critical to investigate how the 2018 dataset on flow behavior can be used to improve quantitative models of flow behavior. This could be addressed in two respects. First, can the changing rheology and channel dynamics be quantitatively modeled, in a predictive fashion that could be applied to other lava flows? Second, can the data and their insights be used to develop improved lava flow forecasting models? Lava flow forecasting has involved both a) models to predict evolving rheology and flow front advance rates and length and b) models to predict the lava flow descent path. The dataset collected during the 2018 LERZ eruption has relevance to both approaches.

A primary motivation for this project is to use the fundamental insights from the large 2018 dataset to inform future operational hazard assessment. To this end, we envision that the project will incorporate a significant modeling component, like that described above, with the goal of producing predictive quantitative constraints on flow advance rates, flow lengths and/or flow descent paths for future eruption responses and the next generation of long-term hazard assessments at U.S. volcanoes.

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisors, below, early in the application process to discuss project ideas.

Proposed Duty Station: Hilo, HI; periodic visits to Anchorage, AK, will also be required.

Areas of Ph.D.: Geology, geophysics, volcanology, or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Research Geologist; Research Geophysicist. (This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above. However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Research Advisor(s): Matthew Patrick, (808) 967-8861,; Hannah Dietterich, (907) 786-7474,; Carolyn Parcheta, (808) 345-8829,

Human Resources Office Contact: Leah Lor,, 916-278-9394

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