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UH researchers look for ways to forecast vog levels

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University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers are studying whether it’s feasible to forecast the amount of vog, or volcanic smog, in the air.

Vog is created when sulfur dioxide emitted by a volcano mixes with sunlight and dust. It can pose environmental and health risks to communities throughout Hawaii, particularly to people with asthma or other respiratory conditions. Big Island towns closest to Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting continuously since 1983, are especially vulnerable.

The research team led by principal investigator Steven Businger and lead vog modeler Roy Huff of the Department of Meteorology plan to post their predictions on a website — http://weather.hawaii.edu/vmap — for the public to see.

They caution their work is in its initial phase, however, and have issued a disclaimer warning people not to use the forecasts to make decisions that may affect their health. But they still believe the forecasts on the website will be useful.

"We hope the web pages will generate awareness regarding vog and serve as a learning tool about the hazard for researchers and the general public alike," Huff said in a statement. "The website and the vog forecasting effort are a work in progress with improvements in observations and modeling planned for the near future."

The animated maps on the site resemble weather forecast maps, only they show what levels of vog are expected to drift through the atmosphere instead of clouds or rain.

The written forecasts describe how the distribution of vog is expected to change over the next few days and why.

The scientists plan to compare their forecasts with observations reported by the state Department of Health and the National Park Service. Their long-term goal is to accurately forecast vog levels.

Kilauea has been spewing sulfur dioxide from its Puu Oo vent in the east rift zone steadily for the past 28 years.

But the amount of vog in the air multiplied in March 2008 when a new vent opened at the summit’s Halemaumau crater and a second simultaneous eruption began there. This gave Kilauea two large outlets for sulfur dioxide, and the volcano began releasing two to four times as much sulfur dioxide as before.

At times the vog has been thick enough to kill crops like roses, sunflowers, lettuce and tomatoes. Heavy concentrations of sulfur dioxide can lead to asthma and aggravate lung and heart disease.

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