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STEM and suction solutions at HVO —USGS Volcano Watch

2:38 AM · Apr 5, 2024

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In the educational system, encouraging STEM curriculum prepares students for future careers in STEM fields. In this “Volcano Watch” article, we’ll describe how aspects of STEM are applied at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), using a specific example of field engineering work. Staff at HVO study volcanic processes and associated hazards in Hawaii, with the emphasis and end goal of protecting life and property. The backbone of the observatory is the monitoring network, consisting of a diverse array of instruments located on the flanks of the volcanoes. These instruments relay data back to the observatory, providing information on the behavior of Hawaii’s active volcanoes. The monitoring network is installed and maintained by the HVO field engineering team. Many hours are spent commuting to and from remote field sites. At any one site, field engineers do a variety of tasks, such as changing batteries that power the station, clearing vegetation from near the station, or changing parts that are broken or need to be upgraded. In the shop, field engineers build new stations or station modules, and engineer solutions to solve station-related issues. One important instrument in the HVO monitoring network is the tiltmeter, which records subtle changes in how the ground tilts over time. These tilt changes give an idea of the pressure in the underlying magma reservoir. The data output of the tiltmeter is represented on a time series plot. Scientists specializing in ground deformation at HVO interpret tilt data, paying particular attention to whether the data are trending towards inflation or deflation. The tiltmeters at Uēkahuna and Sand Hill on Kīlauea, for example, provide information on the Halemaʻumaʻu and south caldera magma storage areas beneath Kīlauea’s summit region. HVO field engineers install tiltmeters below the ground surface, so that they can be protected from weather and other elements near the surface. The instruments are housed in a pipe casing that is filled with dry sand; the depth of the tiltmeter is site specific. During a past storm system, accompanied with torrential rains, water had infiltrated a site specific tiltmeter casing. Nineteen feet of the casing depth was filled with wet sand and water, negatively impacting data quality. The casing had to be cleared of the wet sand and water. The question was, how? Ordinarily, we would use a wet/dry vacuum to extract out the dry sand from this casing, for example if the tiltmeter needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, the negative pressure of one wet/dry shop vac was inadequate for wet sand extraction at this depth because wet sand has a higher density (mass/volume) than dry sand. An increase in negative pressure would be required to remove the wet sand. This was accomplished by integrating two vacuums into one inlet hose. To ensure an airtight environment that would couple the two vacuums, a plastic enclosure with a rubber seal was designed. This combined all the negative pressure being created by the two vacuums, providing increased suction action to extract the wet sand in one hose. One vacuum source provided suction for half of the volume of the hose, while the other vacuum source provided suction for the other half of the volume of the hose. In essence, the suction power was doubled within one hose, allowing the dense and wet sand to be pulled into the hose. With over 200 instruments across the Island of Hawaii, HVO field engineers are adept at adaptively responding to the various situations that can occur at these remote monitoring stations. This suction solution is just one example of how the HVO field engineering team uses aspects of STEM to problem solve. ---- Images and captions from USGS: [1] A tiltmeter casing on the south flank of Kīlauea volcano flooded with water. The tiltmeter casing is less than a foot in diameter. [2] The HVO dual vacuum set up used to extract wet sand from flooded tiltmeter casings. ---- Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates. This week’s article was written by HVO field engineer Steven Fuke.