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Department of Geography


Understanding lava lakes using a novel radar altimeter

This project investigates the behaviour of lava lakes, and focuses on two contrasting ‘laboratory volcanoes’ (Kīlauea and Erebus). While both volcanoes host lava lakes, their magma properties differ significantly in terms of composition, crystal content, viscosity and degassing styles. The research involves close collaborations with the US Geological Survey – Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), and the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory (MEVO).

We are collecting high-precision, high-temporal resolution and sustained measurements of lava lake level using an innovative and purpose-built radar instrument, designed and built in collaboration with Professor Paul Brennan at UCL. The new radar instrument will be integrated into the operational surveillance programme of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

A key outcome of the project will be the development of hypotheses that explain the complex variations in lava lake level. While lava lakes are comparatively rare phenomena, they belong to the wide class of open-vent volcanism, and thereby offer generic insights into fundamental aspects of the separation of gas from melt, bi-directional magma flow in conduits, and their relationships to eruptive style and transitions.

Header image: Radar altimeter installed at the crater rim of Erebus volcano in December 2016. There are two dishes – transmit and receive, and Nial Peters stands behind the ‘office’. Several other devices are seen in the background, all trained on the lava lake on the floor of the crater.