Kīlauea Builds a Cinder Cone and a New Eruption Starts in the Galapagos

By Erik Klemetti | June 19, 2018 10:58 am
The cinder/spatter cone being built by Fissure 8, here reaching 50 meters at its rim on June 16, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The cinder/spatter cone being built by Fissure 8, here reaching 50 meters at its rim on June 16, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The eruption on Kīlauea’s lower East Rift Zone continues onward, with Fissure 8 building an impressive cinder cone similar to the one that was formed during the 1960 eruption that the current lavas have wrapped around (see map below). The cinder cone, built by the fountaining of lava from fissure 8, is now over 50 meters (170 feet) tall with a pulsating lava fountain that reaches 20-50 meters (60-165 feet). All this lava is feeding a very entrenched lava flow that is still reaching the ocean at the former site of Kapoho Bay. Small lava flows or occasional spatter are still spilling from Fissures 6, 16 and 18, but right now it is really Fissure 8 that is driving the eruption. The lava in the channel has been clocked at 24 km/hr (15 mph) close to the vent itself, when the lava is hottest. By the time the flow reaches the ocean, it has slowed down significantly to ~2 km/hr (1.5 mph), mostly thanks to all the cooling that has happened, making the lava stickier and more resistant to flow. The fast moving lava from Fissure 8 might suggest that the eruption is tapping even hotter magma, allowing for such rapid flows to form.

Thermal map of the Leilani Estates Lava flow field, showing the ocean entry at the former Kapoho Bay. USGS/HVO.

Thermal map of the Leilani Estates Lava flow field, showing the ocean entry at the former Kapoho Bay. USGS/HVO.

The thermal map (above) of the lava flow field shows the narrow and winding channel of the lava as it heads to the sea. In a few places, you can see small breakouts where the lava has spilled out of the channel. The sharp turn the lava makes before it reaches Kapoho Bay happens as it curves around that 1960 cone. If you look closely at where the lava hits the ocean and you can clearly see the plume of warmer water that reaches almost a kilometer out. This could be caused by the lava entering the ocean or even lava traveling in tubes further into the Pacific before erupting as pillow lavas beneath the waves.

The summit of the volcano continues to subside as well (see above and below), to the tune of 60 meters (almost 200 feet) in the last week alone. This has been accompanied by explosions that send ash and debris thousands of meters into the air. These slow, slumping collapses of the shield volcano summits are common, usually caused by exactly what is happening now: draining of magma from the summit reservoir to some other part of the volcano. No one is quite sure how long the pattern of earthquakes, explosions and collapse might last, but the whole summit area of Kīlauea will end up coming out of this eruption with an entirely different look.

Slumping of the Halema'uma'u Crater walls on Kīlauea seen on June 16, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Slumping of the Halema’uma’u Crater walls on Kīlauea seen on June 16, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Meanwhile, in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, another big shield volcano is erupting (see below). The Galapagos, like Hawai’i, are a chain of island formed by a hotspot, so the eruptions in the two archipelagos are similar: lava flows and broad volcanoes. Luckily, the lava flows being produced by the eruption that started over this past weekend are not likely to impact people, but rather the rare wildlife endemic to the islands. Much like the current Leilani Estates eruption, this new event at Cerro la Cumbra on Fernandina started with fissure eruptions and lava fountaining and is now producing a number of lava flows that are moving towards the sea. This is the first eruption on the island since last September.

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  • Smith_Kingston

    I think Kapoho crater & Green Lake (that the lava has wrapped around & filled the lake) are several hundred years old? The cinder cone from 1960 was most recently a cinder quarry.

  • Peter Sgouros

    “Luckily, the lava flows being produced by the eruption that started over this past weekend are not likely to impact people, but rather the rare wildlife endemic to the islands.”

    I don’t see how this qualifies as ‘Luckily’, especially from a source like Discover.

  • ProfessorOzpin

    “If you look closely at where the lava hits the ocean and you can clearly
    see the plume of warmer water that reaches almost a kilometer out. This
    could be caused by the lava entering the ocean or even lava traveling
    in tubes further into the Pacific before erupting as pillow lavas
    beneath the waves.”

    Erik, as this new peninsula is formed, is there any realistic risk of an undersea avalanche causing a tsunami?

    • Chris DeVries

      I’m not Erik, but I am learned in the volcano sciences. And the answer is no, not really. Tsunami can be caused by Kilauea, but always by the slip of the land on Kilauea’s coastline into the ocean displacing water. This is a risk because of the magma that is injected into Kilauea’s rift zone(s) – it causes divergent motion (spreading) and extensional stress, inevitably followed by a landslip, which creates a new cliff (pali in Hawaiian). This is a real danger, but still very unlikely to happen in any given year.

      As for the question you asked, the eruption into the ocean so far has built a lava delta/bench (and continues to do so) but effects from bench collapse are generally local (which is why HVO warns against approaching active ocean entries). One of the only fatalities in the 1983-current eruption at Kilauea was at an ocean entry – a guy fell into boiling hot water and was boiled alive while he drowned. And while waves of hot and/or cold water can be generated by bench collapse, splashing onlookers who get too near, they are too small to have a major impact more than a few hundred meters away. Also associated with bench collapse is the dreaded littoral explosion, caused when the insulated, hot hot lava in the lava tube meets cold water instantaneously as the bench shears off – water flashes to steam which can travel up the tube and explode out slightly inland of the area where the bench collapsed, throwing molten and solid rock into the air – if these type of events are recurrant or if there is a situation where they can continue for a few hours unabated as the ocean water keeps entering the lava tube and flashing to steam generating these explosive events, an actual hill can be built of this material called a littoral cone. Needless to say, getting hit by large blocks of even solid lava is not condusive to staying alive. This is therefore the major risk of bench collapse. There is simply not enough mass built up for there to be a large submarine landslide that pushes enough water to cause even a local tsunami of note.

      Caveat: I am not saying that there will never be enough mass for this to happen. But lava benches are unstable by nature (given their very fragmented, loosely consolidated base). It would be very unlikely for enough material to build up so that a collapse and landslide cause a dangerous tsunami because in order for that to happen, the lava bench would have to survive (and continue to be enlarged by lava from the Puna vents) for many years. The likelihood of this happening is extremely small. And the risk TODAY of this happening is non-existent.

      • ProfessorOzpin

        So I’ve understood the mechanisms involved, but the scale is nowhere near large enough to be a problem. Good.

        • Chris DeVries

          Yeah, basically it’s gravity, aided by geologic processes. In the case of the lava bench, you’re looking at a foundation being created for new land. This is how Hawaii came to be, and how it continues to grow in size. The tsunami threat really only becomes real once you have stable land at a location adjacent to a volcanic rift zone along the coast. Eventually, after many thousands of years, the current ocean entry zone may look like the area further west on the island, where Hilina pali and Pulama pali (and many others) were created by the extensional volcanic environment, and the foundation that is being built now with every cubic meter of lava that is fragmenting as it hits the ocean (and with every lava bench collapse, which also creates new foundation for land on Hawaii) may give way, causing massive water displacement that manifests as a tsunami. But even then, for most of these kinds of events, destruction thousands of kilometers away is rare (people are also worrying about the same thing happening at the Canary Islands, where a land slip could create a tsunami that takes out major US and European coastal cities, but this is a worst-case scenario – far more likely is local devastation and small effects further away). And whatever happens, it’s important to note that it will take dozens of eruptions of lava at this site and nearby, each building more land that becomes more and more stable, to create a significant tsunami risk.

      • Laura Murphy

        I have just learned the answers to more of my questions, than I have in 4 days of layman research on the web! thank you so much

        • Chris DeVries

          No problem. I volunteered at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory a few years back, and taught geology at the college level, so it’s good to be able to dispel fears and rumors, and spread actual knowledge. Volcanoes are the most fascinating and awesome (the original definition of awesome – inspiring awe) things I have ever come across; this year has been awesome for the public awareness of volcanoes (obviously I think this is excellent – we haven’t seen this much media coverage of volcanoes since Eyjafjallajokull closed European airspace), but the more the public is paying attention, the more wrong ideas are floating around (not so excellent).

          The most ludicrous idea I’ve had people tell me is that we’re seeing an upswing in volcanic activity on Earth (we’re not, btw – public awareness of volcanic activity is not normally correlated with actual frequency of volcanic activity) because the Sun’s output is so low, and apparently when the Sun has a lot of sunspots, somehow they prevent volcanoes from erupting. There’s a guy on youtube who is preparing for the apocalypse that a Yellowstone caldera-forming eruption would bring, because of sunspots. I doubt that any response I issue to that video would convince HIM that he’s wrong, but it’s worth responding to people like him anyway because others might see that response and decide that the video they just watched clearly is not based on the evidence. That’s the problem with the internet – anyone can have an opinion, but the internet lets people who believe various conspiracy theories and other insane ideas gain quite a following if they are compelling storytellers. Erik’s blog here is great (I’ve been reading him since the ScienceBlogs days) because he makes a concerted effort to push back against the bad ideas that can be found in online (and other) media. Unless it’s April Fool’s Day, this is a great place to find accurate information about current volcanic activity, eruptions, and volcano research.

          • Laura Murphy

            Wow!!! Thanks Eric for responding! Your a prestigious guy and I surely appreciate the time you took to respond. I was in Hawaii from June 3rd this month till the 13th. Was on an inter island cruise ship that should have docked in Hilo and Kona.

            I wanted to see the volcanic events as they were happening. However, the cruise line informed us as we were boarding that they had canceled both port dockings to the Big Island, due to Vog and the chemicals created where the Lava met the sea. I had bought photographic binoculars (that I shouldn’t have)…just to take pics of what I could. Rumor had it that the the previous 7 day cruise had stayed out at sea, (rather than doc in Hilo) and passengers where able to see some of the lava flows from off shore. Lucky me, they canceled BOTH Hilo and Kona docking and passed up the Big Island altogether. I kept up with the news, but was unable to even catch a glimpse of the action.

            I live in Washington State, never out side of the view of Mr. Rainer (Mt. Tahoma, in historical truth). As a child growing up, I had an unnatural terror of volcanos. Every time we where near to the mountain, I was petrified it would blow up. My grandparents lived in Morton, Washington, we lived in Kent, Washington. Needless to say volcanos are my constant companions.

            My mothers birthday is May 18th. I was 17 years old in 1980 as we sat in our back yard in Kent, Washington having cake and BBQ to celebrate her birthday; when all was deafened by the loudest explosion I think I shall ever hear. I lived thru that terrible Mt. St. Helens eruption. My grandma and grampa in Morton, Washington, thought that the end had come. There where sideways lighting, horrifying noises, panicked animals literally fleeing, running through the property. Bear, elk, and deer, alike. Grampa would later tell me, “side by side, they ran for safety”. And so much ash,. Grandma thought God had come. She really did. We were unable to get to them due to government road blocks etc. She and gramps where fine but they went through so much.

            I am very sad to have missed Kailua, I would like to have seen more action, enough to continue to eliminate my fears regarding volcanic activity. I believe in my life-time I will see another volcanic eruption here in my local neighborhood with-in the Pacific Northwest. I need to be ready, unafraid and knowledgeable. I have children and grandchildren on the way, I want to protect and educate them.

            I have found that experience is the best teacher. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your knowledge with me. Laura

          • Laura Murphy

            Eric!!!!! Chris I mean

          • Laura Murphy

            Good grief I was so excited I can’t even spell your name right! CHRIS

          • Laura Murphy

            SORRY about that!

          • Chris DeVries

            No worries. I’ve done the same thing a couple times in comments threads over the years.

            I wasn’t even alive for the Mt. St. Helens eruption (it happened about 16 months before my birth), so I am intensely envious that you got to witness such a large event first-hand. I’ve seen my share of eruptions around the world, but witnessing something like that requires good timing (some would argue BAD timing) and/or living near to an active volcano – I’ve always had pretty bad timing (when visiting Stromboli volcano in Italy, a volcano that has been consistently erupting every few minutes for over 1000 YEARS with only a handful of breaks lasting a few months at a time, I happened to come during one of the breaks) and have lived most of my life over a thousand miles from the nearest active volcano (excepting my extremely entertaining escapades on the Big Island of Hawaii that is).

            I am truly sorry that you were cheated out of an awesome lava experience by a cruise company. That’s the thing about tourists – areas that rely on them for a lot of revenue tend to have a vested interest in those tourists staying alive and healthy. I had a similar experience in Costa Rica where I had to literally break the law (and skulk around like a cat burglar) to get anywhere near an erupting volcano (Arenal). They are VERY interested in tourists not dying in Costa Rica. But I maintain that the drive to the volcano, in which I got into a car accident (I wasn’t injured but I think that was luck more than anything – the car was totalled), was far more risky than any hazard I was exposed to in the off-limits zone around the volcano. This is not something I recommend doing by the way (the volcano part and the car accident part, I guess!) – I have enough experience with volcanoes to know what, and where the hazards are, and I know what my risk tolerances are, so that I am aware when I am doing something truly stupid (as distinguished by something only mildly stupid). I have only done truly stupid things with volcanoes maybe 2 times in my life. Once in Guatemala when I climbed near to the top of Fuego volcano (yes, the same Fuego that just killed hundreds of people a couple of weeks ago) and once in Tanzania when I camped inside the active and periodically erupting crater of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano (not as dangerous as it sounds, but the area in which the group I was with set up our tents was buried in 3 meters of lava just a couple months after we were there, so still not that safe). Truly stupid things (at least in my mind) will kill or seriously injure you once every thousand (or less) times you attempt them. I don’t think the risk at either of those places was worse than that.

            The risk of landing on the Big Island and taking tourists to see the lava fountains and flows was pretty small, but I am confident the local authorities are very much against tour companies bringing thousands of people every day into the area, hampering their efforts to monitor the eruption and keep it from claiming any casualties. It sucks when the thing you really want to see, the thing that fascinates you so much, is someone else’s calamity, an event that has turned their life upside down. I mean, yes, the eruptive vents in Hawaii opened up in literally the highest risk area for lava flow inundation, according to a USGS hazard map (so the people who built/bought property there were definitely aware that this would happen eventually), but that doesn’t mean they deserve to lose everything. This is the eternal conflict at the heart of every volcano enthusiast, and something I struggle with all the time.

            Volcanoes aren’t something to fear though (at least in my opinion)…definitely respect them, and as you live near one, be aware of the hazards and plan accordingly, but unless you live in a low-lying area like a river valley draining the meltwater from Mt. Rainier, or live VERY close to the summit, the biggest risk you’ll likely face from a Rainier eruption is ashfall (and even then, Rainier’s past eruptions have not been that heavy on the ash, St. Helens is so much worse). The rivers draining the mountain’s glaciers would almost certainly be subject to volcanic mudflows if Rainier erupted, so getting to high ground is key if you are in a low-lying area. Pyroclastic flows are rare at Mt. Rainier.

          • Chris DeVries

            No worries. I’ve done the same thing a couple times in comments threads over the years.

            I wasn’t even alive for the Mt. St. Helens eruption (it happened about 16 months before my birth), so I am intensely envious that you got to witness such a large event first-hand. I’ve seen my share of eruptions around the world, but witnessing something like that requires good timing (some would argue BAD timing) and/or living near to an active volcano – I’ve always had pretty bad timing (when visiting Stromboli volcano in Italy, a volcano that has been consistently erupting every few minutes for over 1000 YEARS with only a handful of breaks lasting a few months at a time, I happened to come during one of the breaks) and have lived most of my life over a thousand miles from the nearest active volcano (excepting my extremely entertaining escapades on the Big Island of Hawaii that is).

            I am truly sorry that you were cheated out of an awesome lava experience by a cruise company. That’s the thing about tourists – areas that rely on them for a lot of revenue tend to have a vested interest in those tourists staying alive and healthy. I had a similar experience in Costa Rica where I had to literally break the law (and skulk around like a cat burglar) to get anywhere near an erupting volcano (Arenal). They are VERY interested in tourists not dying in Costa Rica. But I maintain that the drive to the volcano, in which I got into a car accident (I wasn’t injured but I think that was luck more than anything – the car was totalled), was far more risky than any hazard I was exposed to in the off-limits zone around the volcano. This is not something I recommend doing by the way (the volcano part and the car accident part, I guess!) – I have enough experience with
            volcanoes to know what, and where the hazards are, and I know what my risk tolerances are, so that I am aware when I am doing something truly
            stupid (as distinguished by something only mildly stupid). I have only done truly stupid things with volcanoes maybe 2 times in my life. Once in Guatemala when I climbed near to the top of Fuego volcano (yes, the same Fuego that just killed hundreds of people a couple of weeks ago) and once in Tanzania when I camped inside the active and periodically
            erupting crater of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano (not as dangerous as it sounds, but the area in which the group I was with set up our tents was
            buried in 3 meters of lava just a couple months after we were there, so still not that safe). Truly stupid things (at least in my mind) will kill or seriously injure you once every thousand (or less) times you attempt them. I don’t think the risk at either of those places was worse
            than that.

            The risk of landing on the Big Island and taking
            tourists to see the lava fountains and flows was pretty small, but I am confident the local authorities are very much against tour companies bringing thousands of people every day into the area, hampering their efforts to monitor the eruption and keep it from claiming any casualties. It sucks when the thing you really want to see, the thing that fascinates you so much, is someone else’s calamity, an event that has turned their life upside down. I mean, yes, the eruptive vents in Hawaii opened up in literally the highest risk area for lava flow
            inundation, according to a USGS hazard map (so the people who built/bought property there were definitely aware that this would happen
            eventually), but that doesn’t mean they deserve to lose everything. This is the eternal conflict at the heart of every volcano enthusiast, and something I struggle with all the time.

            Volcanoes aren’t something to fear though (at least in my opinion)…definitely respect them, and as you live near one, be aware of the hazards and plan accordingly, but unless you live in a low-lying area like a river valley draining the meltwater from Mt. Rainier, or live VERY close to the summit, the biggest risk you’ll likely face from a Rainier eruption is ashfall (and even then, Rainier’s past eruptions have not been that heavy on the ash, St. Helens is so much worse). The rivers draining the mountain’s glaciers would almost certainly be subject to volcanic mudflows if Rainier erupted, so getting to high ground is key if you are in a low-lying area. Pyroclastic flows are rare at Mt. Rainier.

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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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