Kīlauea’s First Ocean Entry, Injury and Andesite of 2018

By Erik Klemetti | May 21, 2018 9:11 am
Lava flows from fissures 16-20 moving across the landscape on May 19, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Lava flows from fissures 16-20 moving across the landscape on May 19, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The eruption at Kīlauea had a number of firsts over the weekend, some of them quite significant. The style of eruption continued much the same as we’ve been seeing: lava flows, fountaining and spatter in the lower East Rift zone near Leilani Estates and intermittent explosions from the summit caldera. However, the nature of the former has changed over the last few days.

Lava reaches the ocean

For the first time in this eruption, lava has reached the ocean. The lava flows produced by fissures 17-20, erupting on the eastern site of the Puna Geothermal Venture, have been quite vigorous and fast-moving, suggesting that the lava may be hotter and less viscous (more on this below), so instead of chunky a’a flows, we’ve been seeing lots of pahoehoe flows. These flows seem to move like streams in channels, even becoming braided like a river system. However, even if the lava looks like it is moving like water, it is nowhere near as runny as water — it is more like the consistency of cool honey or motor oil. However, a lot of it is coming out and it can get superheated in the channels as it builds levees (walls) on the sides of the channels.

Lava from fissure 20 entering the Pacific Ocean on May 20, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Lava from fissure 20 entering the Pacific Ocean on May 20, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Now, it is the lava channels (see top) that really allow for the lava to travel further. The channels carried lava to southeast and then multiple lava flows moved down the slopes of the lower East Rift, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean (see above). That means for the first time in this event, the island is getting bigger! Now, it hasn’t added much, but this is how the Hawaiian island grow, with lava flows adding to the edges. This new land may be ephemeral as the wave action can break the fragile lava apart and the lava platforms that form can collapse into the sea. However, eventually enough lava makes it to the sea to add new land.

The biggest hazard from this ocean entry now is the steam generated by the lava hitting the seawater. This produces a mist that is acidic and fill of tiny volcanic glass shards formed by the lava breaking apart when it cools rapidly as it hits the water. This is why you should always stay away from an active ocean entry — you breathe in this vapor and it can kill you … not to mention that these lava benches being formed are unstable.

UPDATE 11:30 AM ET May 21: The lava flows heading to the ocean also cut off Highway 137, meaning many people will have a more difficult time evacuating the area if needed.

The first lava-related injury

This weekend also saw the first injury caused by the lava erupting near Leilani Estates. A man watching the lava spattering from an active fissure from a porch got hit in the leg by a chunk of spatter, breaking his leg. Like I mentioned above, the lava might seem like it is flowing and flying like water, but it is molten rock, almost as dense as solid rock. So, imagine getting hit by a solid rock flying through the air hundreds of meters … and then make it ~1200ºC (2000ºF) and you can imagine the pain. Lava spatter is unpredictable both in terms of the direction the blobs of lava fly and how far they might fly. It is always best to give the lava fountains and spatter a good deal of distance (like watching them on a webcam).

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Kilauea Eruption Continues: How Long Could It Last?

By Erik Klemetti | May 18, 2018 8:48 am
Lava flows from Fissure 17, seen on May 17, 2018. USGS/HVO

Lava flows from Fissure 17, seen on May 17, 2018. USGS/HVO

The eruption at Kīlauea is still captivating the nation, as it should because this volcano hasn’t behaving like this in almost a century. I thought I’d take a moment to step back and review of the main events so far and what it might all mean for Kīlauea and the people who live around the volcano. These eruptions are separated by a long way if you look at the satellite data and should almost be treated at two different events.

The Leilani Estates Fissures
As we enter the third week of the fissure eruption that started in and around Leilani Estates, much of the same activity continues. More fissures have opened and now we’re up to 21 cracks opening in the ground. Lava flows, spatter and volcanic gases have dominated the eruption, with some of the flows (from fissure 8 and 17) have reached over a couple kilometers in length (see map below). The lava flow field from Fissure 17 shows multiple lava flow flows and a few channels developed in the eruption. The flows seem to have stalled, suggesting less lava erupting from the main fissure.

Thermal satellite image of the Leilani Estates fissure on May 18, 2018. USGS/HVO

Thermal satellite image of the Leilani Estates fissure on May 18, 2018. USGS/HVO

The earthquakes and inflation in the lower East Rift zone continues, so that means this eruption is likely not going to end anytime soon. The continued opening of fissures means that our “burst pipe” in the East Rift zone is still feeling pressure from magma moving from the summit down into the area of Leilani Estates. The question now is whether fresher, hotter magma might start erupting. The sulfur dioxide emissions from the eruption have already begun to damage vegetation in the area as well.

UPDATE 8:30 PM ET May 18: Here is a livestream of the activity at Fissure 17 (thanks to the USGS)

UPDATE 9:15 AM ET May 19: The new pahoehoe lava flow from fissure 20 has been moving over 200 meter per hour and have separated into three lobes. The lava flows from the newer, eastern part of the fissures do appear to be flowing faster than the early flows, suggesting they could be hotter. This image below shows the extent of the fissures across Leilani Estates:

The Summit Explosions
Meanwhile, the eruption at the summit has changed dramatically. In mid-April, we were looking at a rising lava lake that eventually overflowed and covered the bottom of the Halema’uma’u crater with runny, pahoehoe lava flows. Now, here in mid-May, the summit lava lake has drained so far that the lava is interacting with the groundwater table to produce big, explosive eruptions. The largest so far was an ash plume that may have reached 9 kilometers (30,000 feet) with smaller plumes that reached 3-4 kilometers as well.

Now, this might seem like really tall ash plume, but in the scale of volcanoes, they aren’t even what we would call “Plinian” eruptions that reach 30-40 kilometers (98,000 to 130,000 feet)! For Kīlauea, these explosions are big and have thrown blocks of old lava as large as almost a meter across over the parking lot of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

UPDATE 8:30 PM ET May 18: If you want to see a whole bunch of great animations and graphics about the May 17, check out this great website from NOAA/CIMSS Volcanic Cloud Monitoring.

UPDATE 9:15 AM ET May 19: The summit experienced another explosive event overnight, sending ash over 3 kilometers (10,000 feet) into the sky. The USGS is also reporting that recent satellite images show a small part of the summit crater is slumping, likely due to the withdrawal of magma from under the summit. This is nothing too dramatic, but shows that the Halema’uma’u crater is likely enlarging as like what happened in 1924.
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Meet the Volcanologist Running for Congress

By Erik Klemetti | May 17, 2018 7:24 pm
Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and Democrat running for the US House, doing field work.

Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and Democrat running for the US House, doing field work.

It is always exciting (to me) when a scientist runs for public office — and doubly so if that person is a geologist. There have been a few geologists who made waves as politicians, including Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (we’ll leave you to sort out Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s claims of “being a geologist”). Now, imagine if that person was also a volcanologist. Now you really have my attention. That’s Jess Phoenix, a Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives in California.

I had a chance to ask Jess a few questions about her career, her decision to run and science’s role in government. Check out what she had to say below about what a volcanologist can bring to Congress. .

What did you study in your volcanic life?

Lava flow morphologies & volcanic hazards (with an emphasis on mapping). [Note from Erik: You can read another profile of Jess in this Earth magazine article to get into some of the details]

What inspired you to make this change, from a volcano researcher to candidate for the House of Representatives?

With the election of Donald Trump and the realization that my Representative, Steve Knight, has said that California’s preparations for climate change are “foolish,” I realized that the best person to replace a science denier who sits on the House Science Committee is an actual scientist. You need to bring facts to fight fiction.

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Explosions at Kilauea’s Summit Have Intensified

By Erik Klemetti | May 15, 2018 5:22 pm
The ash and steam plume from Kilauea's Halema'uma'u caldera at the summit, seen on May 15, 2018. Image: USGS/HVO.

The ash and steam plume from Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u caldera at the summit, seen on May 15, 2018. Image: USGS/HVO.

It seems like every day since the Leilani Estates eruption began, Kilauea has thrown something new at the people of Hawaii.  The new fissure 17 that opened over the weekend has produced a lava flow that has traveled more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles). However, the news today now comes from the summit of Kilauea in the Halema’uma’u caldera, where the explosive eruptions (see above) have now gotten more intense and are likely to continue.

Last week, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geoscientists warned that explosive eruptions at the summit could become larger than we have seen in almost a century now that the lava lake level has dropped below the water table. Today, the summit released a number of ash-rich plumes (see above) that reached ~1-1.2 kilometers (3,000-4,000 feet) over the volcano, spreading ash across Ka’u Desert. The plume is an intermittent mix of brown volcanic ash and white steam (formed from the water seeping into the lava lake). The Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) shows the ash drifting to the southwest towards Southpoint.

UPDATE 7:40 PM ET May 15: The USGS has raised the aviation warning status at Kilauea to Red. In their latest update: “Ashfall and vog (volcanic air pollution) has been reported in Pahala, about 18 miles (27 km) downwind. NWS radar and pilot reports indicate the top of the ash cloud is as high as 10,000 to 12,000 feet (3-3.6 km) above sea level, but this may be expected to vary depending on the vigor of activity and wind conditions.” Check out the brief video below of the dark grey plume from the volcano.

So far, the new explosive eruptions has not any air travel to Hilo or Kona, but that could change in the wind directions change. The real hazard for ash is for people near the summit where the potential to inhale ash is higher. With ash, it is vital to cover your mouth and nose with a mask or damp cloth to keep from breathing is what is tiny volcanic glass shards.

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New Fissures, New Lava Flows as the Kilauea Eruption Continues

By Erik Klemetti | May 14, 2018 8:59 am
A'a lava flows from Fissure 17 on Kilauea, seen on May 13, 2018. USGS/HVO.

A’a lava flows from Fissure 17 on Kilauea, seen on May 13, 2018. USGS/HVO.

After a brief respite, the fissure eruptions on the lower East Rift zone of Kilauea ramped back up again over the weekend, this time to the northeast of Leilani Estates. Fissure 17 (formerly fissure 18) has been erupting vigorously over the past day and has now produced lava fountains that have throw lava bombs hundreds of meters up — watch the USGS video below for some stunning shots of lava blasting out of the vents! Lava flows (a’a) have also come from this new fissure (see images and videos, above and below) that are now 2 meters (~6 feet) thick in some places. This new fissure eruption has prompted more evacuations of local residents. Assessment of what kind of damage has occurred due to this eruption might take a while (see image below)

The summit area of Kilauea continues to deflate as well, suggesting that magma is still leaving the summit and traveling down the East Rift zone, potentially feeding these new eruptions. The Halema’uma’u crater is producing small explosive eruptions caused by debris falling into the lava lake far below and a white steam plume can be seen much of the time, betraying the fact that groundwater is likely entering the system as well (and I’ve talked about what that might mean). Earthquakes at the summit have even been felt at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.

This step from Leilani Estates to the northeast moves the eruption closer to the Pacific and closer to the cone formed during the 1960 Kapoho eruption. One of the most fascinating observations from the Kapoho eruption is that the temperature of the lava increased as the eruption went on. That might seen counterintuitive, but it is something that Dr. Christina Neal, scientist-in-charge of the HVO, worries could happen during this eruption as well.

So, why would the temperature go up? One way to think of it is to remember that magma moves down the East Rift zone from the summit. Now, eruptions have been happening about halfway down the East Rift zone for decades at Pu’u O’o, so likely it can be stored then. For whatever reason, that vent has stopped erupting in favor of the Leilani Estates fissures. One hypothesis is that the first lava to erupt are “older” lava that was already in the conduit system at Pu’u O’o and that eventually new magma coming from the source and summit will start erupting. Kind of like a bottle of mustard where you have to clear the blockage of old mustard out to get a good flow, these older magmas would need to be cleared out as well. Once that is done, hotter magma from the summit can flow more freely and erupt — and magma like that can tend to produce more lava fountains and lava flows because being hotter, it is less sticky and likely full of more dissolved gases.

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Kilauea Calms Briefly While Merapi in Indonesia Erupts Anew

By Erik Klemetti | May 11, 2018 8:47 am
A USGS scientist measures the temperature of gases emitted from a fissure at Leilani Estates on May 9, 2018. USGS/HVO.

A USGS scientist measures the temperature of gases emitted from a fissure at Leilani Estates on May 9, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The eruptions at Kilauea took a bit of a break over the last day — at least at the surface. The fissures that opened in Leilani Estates (see above) haven’t erupted much new lava, but the are still emitting copious amounts of volcanic gases like sulfur dioxide. So, right now, that is the biggest hazard for people on the east side of the big island: the threat of volcanic fog, or vog. The mixture of water and sulfur dioxide makes acid, which can then irritate eyes, nose, mouth and lungs (at best) and cause extreme respiratory distress and death (at worst).

However, as with most volcanoes, the real action to watch is happening underground. Earthquakes continues under the Puna area where the fissures opened and there is some indication that magma could be moving further down the East Rift zone, so the potential for eruptions to the northeast of Leilani Estates might be increasing. So far, this eruption has covered over 115 acres of land in and around Leilani Estates and destroyed at least 35 structures (mainly homes), displacing thousands of residents. UPDATE 12:15 pm EDT May 10: Here are some more details on the current assessment of the situation by the scientists at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory:

This is all happening at the same time as the summit lava lake at Halema’uma’u is continuing to drop (see below), so the chances of potential steam-driven explosions at the summit might be increasing. The main cause for those explosions would be pressure building after rock falls choke  in the conduit that feed the lava lake, along with some mixing of lava and water to increase the explosiveness. All of this is happening because now the lava lake level will be below the water table, so water can directly create more steam in the conduit and interact with the lava. This potential for an explosive eruption has prompted a total closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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Kilauea Might Have an Explosive Change of Personality

By Erik Klemetti | May 9, 2018 1:33 pm
Thermal camera image of the dropping summit lava lake at Kilauea, seen on May 8, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Thermal camera image of the dropping summit lava lake at Kilauea, seen on May 8, 2018. USGS/HVO.

So far, the new Leilani Estates eruption on Kilauea has been run by the usual playbook of the volcano: fissure, gas release, lava fountains and lava flows. This style of volcanism is called “Hawaiian” for a reason! However, Kilauea isn’t always a volcano that erupts lava flows that ooze out over the landscape. Occasionally, the volcano will become more explosive.

The Hawaii Volcano Observatory issued an update today that the continued drop in the Halema’uma’a lava lake level (now over 200 meters in 7 days) might put the volcano in a situation where we could get explosive eruptions from the summit. The last time this happened was back in May 1924 and Kilauea produced an eruption that threw volcanic debris kilometers from the summit and an ash plume that reached 3 kilometers (~10,000 feet) up. Another explosive eruption in 1790 produced a plume that may have reached ~9 kilometers (30,000 feet) — that’s a proper Plinian eruption from a shield volcano! That eruption killed a number of native Hawaiians and is one of the few historic eruptions at Kilauea to kill people.

Detail of explosion from Halemaumau at Kīlauea Volcano as viewed from Uwēkahuna Bluff, 11:20 May 18, 1924. USGS/HVO

Detail of explosion from Halemaumau at Kīlauea Volcano as viewed from Uwēkahuna Bluff, 11:20 May 18, 1924. USGS/HVO

So, if Kilauea erupts basalt that is usually runny and makes lava flows, why did it go all explosive? You can generate explosive eruptions two ways: with water dissolved in the magma that gets trapped to make bubbles that burst or when you add water into a magma near there surface to create big steam-and-lava eruptions. At Kilauea, it is the latter than causes these phreatomagmatic eruptions (as they are called by volcanologists).

As the lava lake level at the summit drops, there is a chance that the level will reach the groundwater table under Kilauea’s summit. If that happens, the groundwater could interact with the lava and produce these steam-and-lava explosions like what happened in 1924 and 1790.

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Lava Flows and Sulfur Dioxide Threaten Leilani Estates on Kilauea

By Erik Klemetti | May 6, 2018 2:01 pm
Lava fountains from the new fissure eruption at Leilani Estates on Kilauea, seen on May 5, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Lava fountains from the new fissure eruption at Leilani Estates on Kilauea, seen on May 5, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The new eruption far on the East Rift zone of Kilauea is continuing. The latest count has at least 10 fissure vents erupting (see below) on the east side of Leilani Estates and more cracks in the ground, some releasing copious sulfur dioxide gas. The lava flows coming from the fissures vents that are intermittently erupting has destroyed at least 5 homes UPDATE: destroyed up to 31 homes and lava fountains reached as high 70 meters (215 feet) — you can watch some of the impressive footage of the eruption below. All of the Leilani Estates subdivision has been evacuated with little idea when residents might be permitted back into their homes.

UPDATE 8:00 PM EDT: ABC News just tweet some stunning video of the eruption today. Long lava flows and lava spattering from the fissures — right in the middle of neighborhoods. Amazing and tragic.

Lava flows blocking the road in Leilani Estates on Kilauea, seen on May 5, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Lava flows blocking the road in Leilani Estates on Kilauea, seen on May 5, 2018. USGS/HVO.

UPDATE: The lava flow from fissure 8 (see map below) has now travelled over 1.2 kilometers and more steaming cracks have opened near fissure 8 and 9.

In some of the most stunning video, you can see a fissure erupting in the middle of an area of homes. These vents could be active for weeks-to-months, so many of these homes could be inundated with lava. This part of Hawaii is by no means wealthy, so the stakes are high for the people who live in Leilani Estates — many of which may not be able to just “pick up and leave”.


Video by Mick Kalber, Vimeo

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New Eruption Started in Leilani Estates on Kilauea

By Erik Klemetti | May 4, 2018 7:29 am
The new fissure eruption in Leilani Estates on the far downslope of the East Rift zone of Kilauea, seen on May 3, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The new fissure eruption in Leilani Estates on the far downslope of the East Rift zone of Kilauea, seen on May 3, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Yesterday, a new eruption started on the slopes of Kilauea. Far down the East Rift zone, in the Leilani Estates subdivision, fissures began to open yesterday. By the time evening hit, lava was spattering from the cracks and short lava flows that travelled ten meters (30 feet) soon followed. Check out the USGS video of the eruption after it had just started on May 3.

UPDATE: If you want to see and hear some impressive video of the eruption, check out this – the lava spattering from the fissure is amazing. (Hat tip to Janine Krippner for this link).

UPDATE: Although I don’t condone flying drones in this situation, here is some great footage from a drone of the new eruption. The splattering lava and slow, short lava flows are clearly seen.

Scientists from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory flew over the new eruption soon after it started and captured pictures and video of the eruption. The first thing to notice is that the area has not seen an eruption in a long time. The landscape is forested and, unfortunately, also developed. Houses are sprinkled throughout the trees in this subdivision, and much like the homes at Kalapana, these homes are now in direct danger of being destroyed by lava flows. Luckily, these lava flows are sluggish so far, so no people are in danger and the subdivision is currently being evacuated. The subdivision has over 700 building and 1700 residents. Looking at the USGS map of Kilauea, it appears that there haven’t been eruptions in this part of the East Rift zone since 1955 and most of the flows in the area date from the 1840s and 1790s.

UPDATE 9:45 PM May 4: A magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck the East Rift zone at about ~11:30 AM in Hawai’i. The earthquake was about 16 kilometers to the southwest of Leilani Estates, where the new eruption started yesterday. This is a large earthquake for Kilauea and its shallow depth (5 km) suggests it is related to the new injections of magma into the east rift. The eruption is ongoing at Leilani Estates, with at least 5 fissures erupting at least some magma and significant releases of sulfur dioxide. As evacuations continue, shelters have been set up for residents and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been closed. At least 2 homes have been destroyed by the eruption in Leilani Estates already. I talked to The Atlantic about the eruption earlier today as well.

The M6.9 earthquakes appears to have triggered another ash-rich explosion at Pu’u O’o as well:

The fissures appeared to have stopped emitting lava after a few hours. This does not mean the eruption is over as more magma could be moving through the tube system under Kilauea’s East Rift. Usually, the new eruptions follow a sequence of inflation and earthquakes, then fumes, then fissures forming. The lava eruption so far has been much less dramatic than the 2011 Kamoamoa fissure eruption, but this could change.

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Crater Floor Collapses at Kilauea: What Might Come Next?

By Erik Klemetti | May 1, 2018 10:29 am
The summit lava lake at Kilauea, seen on April 30, 2018. The lake level had dropped 15 meters over the weekend. USGS/HVO.

The summit lava lake at Kilauea, seen on April 30, 2018. The lake level had dropped 15 meters over the weekend. USGS/HVO.

We’ve been keeping a close watch on Kilauea over the past couple weeks and now, after weeks of high lava lake levels and inflation, events might be starting to unfold.

Yesterday, the crater floor at Pu’u O’o on the East Rift partially collapsed, suggesting that the lava that was filling in below the crater floor was draining away. This came during a bout of increased earthquakes (see below) that began mid-afternoon in Hawaii. Right after the earthquakes started, the webcams pointed at Pu’u O’o saw the floor begin to collapse and that lasted for at least a few hours, punctuated by some small explosions triggered by the collapsing rocks. By the early evening, things had settled down, but no lava was spotted in the floor of Pu’u O’o. Bad weather has obscured a lot of the events of the day, but a helicopter flight is planned for today that could reveal the extent of the collapse and any other changes.

Earthquakes at Kilauea over the past week. The large increase since April 30 is related to the collapse of the floor of the Pu'u O'o crater and inflation on the East Rift zone. USGS/HVO.

Earthquakes at Kilauea over the past week. The large increase since April 30 is related to the collapse of the floor of the Pu’u O’o crater and inflation on the East Rift zone. USGS/HVO.

UPDATE 6:30 PM EDT May 1: Hawaiian officials have closed off the popular Kalapana access to the lava flow field due to the increased chance of eruption in this eastern part of the East Rift zone. Additionally, USGS scientists weren’t able to view Pu’u O’o crater today due to ash and poor weather, which they say suggest the explosion and collapse are continuing. The webcam pointed into the Pu’u O’o crater has ash on the lens as well (but clouds filling the crater).

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Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.
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