Is the Kīlauea Eruption Winding Down?

By Erik Klemetti | August 14, 2018 9:54 am
The steaming cone at Fissure 8 with some small pockets of molten lava in the main vent area. Taken August 12, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The steaming cone at Fissure 8 with some small pockets of molten lava in the main vent area. Taken August 12, 2018. USGS/HVO.

It has been awhile since I updated on the lower East Rift Zone eruption on Hawaii’s Kīlauea. Well, it appears that the eruption is slowing down significantly. The fountaining at the Fissure 8 cone has stopped (see above) and the lava lake that formed there has gotten sluggish and sticky. Does this mean we’re seeing the end of the eruption that has paved over so many homes and added to the Big Island? That is hard to say with any certainty at this point.

There are still dribbles of lava making it to the ocean entry between the Kapoho Bay and Ahalanui, meaning that there is still some lava being fed into the lava tube system that has formed, all being fed by Fissure 8. However, that might be merely lava making its way through the system, so the USGS is watching closely to see if the ocean entries end altogether with this waning activity.

The earthquakes and collapses at the summit seem to have slowed down sharply as well. A month ago, the summit was seeing dozens of small to moderate earthquakes each day, but now only 3 earthquakes struck on the summit on August 13. Combine that with the lowest sulfur dioxide emissions measured on Kīlauea in a decade, and all in all, it seems that something has changed over the last week.

Now, it would be easy to say that the eruption is ending, but it might not be that simple. The lack of vigorous eruptions, the low sulfur dioxide, the settling of the summit earthquakes, they all point to the idea that there is less magma moving in the system underneath Kīlaeau at this moment. However, when you look at eruptions like this that have happened around the world, they can wax and wane, so this brief pause might be just that: a pause. It will take likely months of these conditions before the Hawaii Volcano Observatory would declare this eruption as “over”.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Check Out How the 2018 Eruption Has Changed at Kīlauea’s Summit

By Erik Klemetti | July 30, 2018 7:30 am
Kīlauea's summit seen on a July 28, 2018 overflight, showing the deep new crater. USGS/HVO.

Kīlauea’s summit seen on a July 28, 2018 overflight, showing the deep new crater. USGS/HVO.

The eruption at Kílauea has almost reached 3 months and in a sense, this eruption was a two-for-the-price of one. Most of the attention has been on the lava flows on the lower East Rift zone and rightly so. Those lava flows are the largest eruption in historic times at the Hawaiian volcano and have destroyed hundreds of homes, along with permanently altering parts of the coast. However, even after the really big explosions died down at the summit, the big changes there have continued.

Every 10-20 hours (or so), the summit experiences another explosion that releases about the same energy has an ~M5 earthquake would release. These explosions — 58 so far — are all happening because the summit is still subsiding — sinking into the ground. This slow collapse to form another caldera inside the pre-existing Kīlauea caldera has been going since the lower East Rift zone started and is likely cause by all that magma leaving the summit, pulling support out from the summit. Even between explosions, the summit area experiences dozens of small earthquakes per hour. As long as the lower East Rift zone eruption continues, we might expect the collapse of the summit to continue (and you can watch it on the HVO webcams).

So, what has changed? This collapse started around the lava lake that used to reside in the Halema’uma’u Crater. That lava lake formed in 2008 and last almost exactly a decade. Since the lava lake drained in May, the Crater has collapsed, taking some of the larger caldera floor with it.

Check out this image of the Kīlauea summit area in 2003 (below).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Earthquake Swarm Off the Coast of Oregon and California

By Erik Klemetti | July 25, 2018 9:48 am
(Credit: Lynn Yeh/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Lynn Yeh/Shutterstock)

One thing that many people in the Pacific Northwest are holding their breath for is “The Big One” — the next recurrence of a massive earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction zone. This earthquake could be greater than a magnitude 8 and cause immense damage to cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. This hypothetical earthquake could even potentially trigger a tsunami that will cross the Pacific Ocean just like a similar temblor in 1700 did when waves washed ashore in Japan. It is a serious threat that could happen next week … or in 200 years.

Sources of potential earthquakes in the Cascadia subduction zone. The Big One will be similar to the 1700 earthquake. USGS.

Sources of potential earthquakes in the Cascadia subduction zone. The Big One will be similar to the 1700 earthquake. USGS.

With all that being said, not all earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest are the same. The Big One will be generated by the stress built up as the Juan de Fuca plate off the coast of Oregon, Washington, California and British Columbia slides underneath North America (see above). The plates can stick, creating stress that is sometimes released as giant earthquakes (and many smaller ones). The “snapping” back of the plate can create tsunamis, just as we saw in 2004 off Indonesia and 2011 off Japan.

However, those aren’t the only earthquakes that might be felt in the Pacific Northwest. The volcanoes of Cascadia, formed from the same subduction that is going on with the Juan de Fuca plate, can generate earthquakes as magma moves underneath them. Smaller faults that are far inland and shallower than the boundary between the two plates can also accumulate stress and form earthquakes that tend to be smaller (but potentially as damaging if they were to happen under a big city).

Locations of the July 24-25, 2018 earthquake swarm off the coast of Oregon and California. USGS.

Locations of the July 24-25, 2018 earthquake swarm off the coast of Oregon and California. USGS.

The current earthquake swarm off the coast of Oregon and California (see above) is yet another way earthquakes are generated. At least 11 earthquakes that were as large as M5.6 have shaken the seafloor ~200 kilometers (125 miles) from Crescent City in California. The largest of these were weakly felt along the coast and didn’t generate any tsunami of any kind. It has definitely gotten people’s attention, but this isn’t a precursor to the The Big One.

Instead, these earthquakes are happening along part of the mid-ocean ridge where the Pacific Plate is moving away from the Juan de Fuca plate. Instead of the Big One and other earthquakes formed by plates coming together, these earthquakes were from extension — plates or parts of plates spreading away from each other. They occurred within ~40 kilometers (25 miles) of the Juan de Fuca spreading ridge, where magma rises and pushes the plates apart. So, earthquakes like these are fairly common off the North American coast.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

That Fissure Opening “Near” Yellowstone? Not a Sign of an Impending Eruption.

By Erik Klemetti | July 20, 2018 1:25 pm
The Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Pixabay.

The Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Pixabay.

Many people have pointed out to me that there is a news frenzy about “fissures opening near Yellowstone“. Now, considering that if this were happening, that would be newsworthy, I had to check it out … and with most “news” about Yellowstone, it is much ado about nothing related to the volcano in Wyoming.

Climbers in Grand Teton National Park, to the south of Yellowstone, have noticed that the cliff face at Hidden Falls and Inspiration has been breaking off due to cracks (“fissures”) on the mountain. This crack has made it very dangerous for climbers as bits of the cliff (or possibly the entire face) might come crashing down, taking climbers with it. This sort of thing happens often on exposed rock in mountain areas. They can be easily oversteepened and then gravity does its thing, bringing rock down fast. Yosemite National Park experiences this quite often and people have died in the process. That’s why Grand Teton National Park has closed the area to the public.

However, because this cracking — likely due to faulting or weathering in the Tetons — is happening in the general vicinity of the Yellowstone caldera, many in the media have wrongly connected these cracks with the volcano. Let’s get it straight right now: this is in no way a sign of impending eruption at Yellowstone.

Some sources have even tried to say things like “Grand Teton National Park sits atop the Yellowstone supervolcano“. This is just wrong. Even when you look at the footprint of the volcanic system at Yellowstone (see below), it is a massive stretch to say that the Tetons are “over” Yellowstone. The Grand Teton mountain range were formed by the stretching of North America and formed in the geologically-recent past (the last 10 million years). Yellowstone is there due to a hotspot under North America and is not the cause of the Teton range. Connected the two directly is just a gross violation of correlation (location) leading to causation (fissure formed due to the volcano … which it didn’t).

Map of the Yellowstone caldera. The Grand Tetons (and this fissure) are to the south, beyond the extent of this map. USGS.

Map of the Yellowstone caldera. The Grand Tetons (and this fissure) are to the south, beyond the extent of this map. USGS.

Even the portrayal of the fissure as “vast” is overblown. Reports say it is 100 feet long. That’s 30 meters. That is small. I realize that with the eruption in Hawaii, people are now attuned to hear “fissures” and “volcano” and jump to new conclusions that an eruption will start, but this is not the case here. There is no magma body near the surface under the Tetons — and no other signs like earthquakes or gas release. So, no eruption is coming, especially from a 30 meter fissure over 100 kilometers from Yellowstone.

Remember, always trend cautiously when you read about people saying Yellowstone is going to erupt soon. The only real source for news that the conditions at Yellowstone are changing is the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Beyond that, 99% of all Yellowstone news that implies eruption is just an attempt to scare people into reading articles.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Lava Bombs from Ocean Entry Injure 23, Damage Boat in Hawaii

By Erik Klemetti | July 16, 2018 5:42 pm
The ocean entry from the Fissue 8 eruption in the lower East Rift zone of Kīlauea, seen on July 15, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The ocean entry from the Fissue 8 eruption in the lower East Rift zone of Kīlauea, seen on July 15, 2018. USGS/HVO.

News out of Hawaii today is that we have had one first major injury event related to Kīlauea’s ongoing lower East Rift Zone eruption. A tour boat sailing near the ocean entry from the Fissure 8 lava flows was struck by volcanic debris thrown by an explosion, injuring at least 23 people and tearing a hole through the roof of the boat (see below). The boat was apparently outside the 300 meter safety zone near the ocean entry (although some news reports say the boat was only 180 meters away), meaning that these explosions are throwing large lava bombs and blocks further than that!

Here is some video of the explosion that damaged the vessel:

#LeilaniEstatesEruption #KilaueaVolcano UPDATE (July 16 at 9 AM): Unbelievable footage from @IkaikaMarzo’s crew on board the @KalapanaCulturalTours lava boat captures the lava explosion that sent lava bombs (lava rock and debris) flying into the air, which landed on a tour boat that was operated by Shane Turpin. The Hawaiʻi County Fire Department has just confirmed 12 passengers were injured. We are told three people were taken by ambulance to Hilo Medical Center. Two passengers (no details on gender or age) were in stable condition. One, a woman in her 20s, is in serious condition with a fractured femur. The remaining 9 passengers drove themselves to the hospital, and the Fire Department reported their injuries were not as serious. Hawaiʻi County Fire officials say a lava bomb punctured the roof of the boat, leaving a large hole. One of the railings of the boat was also damaged. The lava tour boat returned to Wailoa Harbor in Hilo and docked near Suisan around 7 AM. #HawaiiNewsNow has learned that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is taking the lead on this investigation, which will involve the U.S. Coast Guard as well as the county. It’s unclear how close Turpin’s tour boat was to the Kapoho lava ocean entry when the explosion happened, but eyewitnesses report the boat appeared to be “very close”. On July 11, the Coast Guard changed their mandatory safety perimeter zone around ocean entries (Kapoho and Kalea) from 100 meters to 50 meters for licensed lava tour boat operators. I spoke with #IkaikaMarzo, who says he was consulted about the change, but disagreed with it — saying he believed it was unnecessarily close. All other mariners, without explicit written permission from the Captain of the Port of Honolulu, are required to observe a mandatory 300 meter safety zone around all active lava entry point. Stay tuned to @HawaiiNewsNow for the very latest developments! As soon as I have more information, I’ll update you. #HInews #HawaiiNews #HNN #WeAreYourSource (Images courtesy @IkaikaMarzo)

A post shared by Mileka Lincoln (@milekalincoln) on Jul 16, 2018 at 12:09pm PDT

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

2018 Geology World Cup Finals: Perú vs. Iceland!

By Erik Klemetti | July 13, 2018 3:47 pm

We’ve made it! The 2018 Geology World Cup Finals are here. One of the semifinal matches was really a squeaker while the other featured a blowout.

Final Match: Perú vs. Iceland

Ubinas, an active volcano in southern Perú, seen in 2015. Wikimedia Commons.

Ubinas, an active volcano in southern Perú, seen in 2015. Wikimedia Commons.

You’d have to say, Perú was a dark horse in this tournament. This is not to say the country doesn’t have spectacular geology, but they took out Russia, Colombia and Croatia to reach the finals. Perú is known for its volcanoes, including the 1600 eruption of Huaynaputina, one of the largest eruptions in South America in the past few thousand years — a VEI 6 eruption that likely impact global climate. The local impacts of the eruption and a vivid description were recorded by Catholic priest Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa. did you know the country was hit by a meteorite in 2007? It was a chrondritic meteorite that might represent some of the earlier stuff of our solar system. Perú is also home of some remarkable early whale fossils that could represent the link between land-dwelling and sea-dwelling whales.

Houses buried by cinder and ash from the Heimaey eruption in Iceland, 1973. Wikimedia Commons.

Houses buried by cinder and ash from the Heimaey eruption in Iceland, 1973. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, our other finalist blew past Japan, Australia and Iran to reach the finals easily. It isn’t really a surprise, though. The smallest country (by population) in the 2018 World Cup is one of the most dynamic places on Earth. Multiple geologic features and processes are Icelandic words, like geyser (geysír) and jökulhlaup (glacial outburst flood). The 2014-15 Holuhraun lava field eruption near Barðarbunga was the largest basaltic eruption in over 240 years and one of the largest sulfur dioxide producing eruptions in over 35 years. It is the site of one of the few occasions where humans were able to divert lava flow, preventing lava from blocking a vital fishing harbor at Heimaey in 1973. One of the most remarkable things about Iceland is also its use of geothermal energy — thanks to all that magmatism beneath the island, it can produce more energy than the country could ever use.

So, cast your vote for the champion in the 2018 Geology World Cup!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
MORE ABOUT: Geology, Iceland, Peru, World Cup

Kīlauea Eruption Is a Long-Term Problem for People Living on the Big Island

By Erik Klemetti | July 12, 2018 12:27 pm
The channel of lava from Fissure 8 (in the background), seen on July 10, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The channel of lava from Fissure 8 (in the background), seen on July 10, 2018. USGS/HVO.

It is hard to believe, but the eruption on the lower East Rift Zone of Kīlauea shows no signs of stopping. The lava erupting from Fissure 8 just keeps coming, adding more to the big island of Hawai’i as the lava snakes its way to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, up at the summit of the volcano, the Halema’uma’u Caldera continues to see dramatic changes as the whole surface slowly collapses with the daily explosions and earthquakes. The eruption itself is now the largest known historic eruption on Kīlauea (which means the last 200 years).

The lava flows from Fissure 8 (top) are moving mainly through channels created by the lava itself. As the lava moves, the edges cool and you build levees on each side of the flow, building a perched channel where the lava continues to move (see below). Sometimes, those levees are topped over or breached and smaller flows can leak out the sides of the major channel. That seems to be the current pattern in the Leilani Gardens flow field and those breakouts are what are expanding the area that these lava flows are covering on the land. Otherwise, the lava either builds up the thickness of the new lava flow field or spills out to the Pacific (below). The entire lava flow field now covers ~29 km2 (11.2 square miles) and has added ~2.5 km2 (630 acres) to the island.

A lava flow from the Fissure 8 channel that was formed by an overflow on July 11, 2018. USGS/HVO

A lava flow from the Fissure 8 channel that was formed by an overflow on July 11, 2018. USGS/HVO

In some places, the lava flows have crusted over but are likely still carrying lava towards the ocean in lava tubes. Tubes are an even more efficient way to move lava as they are more insulated from the cold atmosphere, so a tube system will carry lava further. This is how the Pahoa lava flows in 2014 were able to get from the now-defunct Pu’u O’o vent down to the settlement of Pahoa.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Eruptions, Science, Science Blogs

Final 4 of the 2018 Geology World Cup

By Erik Klemetti | July 11, 2018 8:25 pm
2018 Geology World Cup

2018 Geology World Cup

Only 4 countries left in the 2018 Geology World Cup! Vote in the semifinal matches!

Game 1: Perú vs. Colombia

In what is likely a massive upset, Perú snuck by Russia by only a few percentage points. So, now the match for the finals is two South American teams. There isn’t a lot that sets Colombia and Perú apart: they both have active volcanoes, they both experience earthquakes, they both host parts of the Andes and parts of the Amazon Basin. Most people likely don’t even know that Colombia and Perú share a common border!

Game 2: Iceland vs. Japan

The second game is two island nations. One is dominated by basaltic volcanoes and a mid-ocean ridge (Iceland). The other is dominated by subduction zones (Japan). Japan might have many more earthquakes than Iceland, but Iceland runs the table on Japan in terms of glaciers. Both countries have actively grown in the past century thanks to volcanoes erupting in the ocean as well!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
MORE ABOUT: Geology, World Cup

Geology World Cup Quarterfinals!

By Erik Klemetti | July 9, 2018 10:00 am

We’re down to eight countries in the 2018 Geology World Cup. Cast your ballot here to see which make it to the final 4 standing.

Game 1: Russia vs. Perú

The extent of the Siberian Traps in Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The extent of the Siberian Traps in Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Few volcanic events on Earth have been as big as the Siberian Traps in Russia. These massive lava flows and explosive ash deposits happened ~252 million years ago and lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. The eruptions may have dumped over 1 million cubic kilometers of volcanic material on the surface! That would have released a huge amount of volcanic gases that may have been the cause of the end-Permian extinction that wiped about 96% of sea life and over 70% of life on land.

Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru. Wikimedia Commons.

Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru. Wikimedia Commons.

Did you know that the two largest glaciated areas in the tropics occur in Perú? The Quelccaya ice cap contains a record of ice that goes back over 5,000 years — an integral piece of what we know about how the planet have changed during human civilization. As the ice cap melts due to climate change, many places around it that were normally very dry now have a source of water. That sounds good … except as the ice cap retreats and eventually disappears, that source of water will be gone for good.

Game 2: Switzerland vs. Colombia

The Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border. marchipatrick / Flickr.

The Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border. marchipatrick / Flickr.

The Matterhorn in Switzerland is a geologic feature called a “klippe“. This is a word that means it is a remnant of older rock that was pushed up over younger rock during a big tectonic collision. The rocks themselves that make up the Matterhorn originated in Africa, so the mountain itself is an immigrant to the Eurasian plate. Its distinctive shape was carved by glaciers that filled the Alps during the last Ice Age, leaving very steep sides when the ice retreated and the sides collapsed.

Aftermath of the Nevado del Ruiz lahars in 1985. USGS.

Aftermath of the Nevado del Ruiz lahars in 1985. USGS.

One of the deadliest eruptions in the last 100 years occurred at Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. Many people have heard about the volcanic mudflows (lahars) that swept down the sides of the volcano on November 13, 1985. The eruption itself that caused the mudflow was surprisingly small and other than the mudflow itself, little record of the blast remains. However, the heat from the eruption melted enough ice and snow from the summit to send muddy debris down to Armero, which was buried a few hours after the eruption. The final death toll was likely over 21,000 people, many of which could have been saved if people heeded the warnings of the impending flow.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Is Volcanic Activity Increasing Across the Globe? No, But Your Brain Thinks So

By Erik Klemetti | July 6, 2018 9:09 am
Lava flows from Fissure 8 on Kilauea, seen on July 2, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Lava flows from Fissure 8 on Kilauea, seen on July 2, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Since high profile eruptions like the ones at Kīlauea or Fuego, those of us in the volcanosphere get a lot of emails/tweet/questions that ask a very similar question: Is volcanic activity increasing? In fact, many times the question isn’t even if it is increasing but why it is increasing, accepting without question the notion that we are experiencing more volcanic eruptions today than in the Earth’s past. However, ask a volcanologist (like me) that question, and you’ll get the same answer from pretty much everyone: No, it is not increasing. So, why do so many people think it is? Well, that comes from stuff going on in your head rather than anything in our planet.

So, why do people perceive volcanic activity as increasing when it isn’t? To answer that, let’s start with Mookie Betts. Many of you know who he is already. He’s not a famous volcanologist or an insightful statistician or a world-renowned anthropologist.

No, he’s an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Eruptions, Science, Science Blogs
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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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