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Is Another Kīlauea Volcano Explosion Likely?

August 19, 2016, 10:00 AM HST
* Updated August 19, 10:58 AM
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VW 2016 08-18_20160729_JLB_IMG_0631_copy2The explosive event at Halemaʻumaʻu Crater’s lava lake on Aug. 6, 2016, was the latest in a series that began in 2008.

It is useful to view the event in the context of the entire series and to consider if another is likely.

The current summit eruption started explosively on March 19, 2008, when a rockfall temporarily impeded the release of volcanic gas from a new vent. Pressure built up, and an explosion ensued a few minutes later. The erupted material consists entirely of older rocks from past eruptions; the gas came from magma not yet in the vent.

Seven more explosive events took place between April 9 and Oct. 14, 2008. All involved both old rocks and new magma, which had risen into the new vent.

Since 2008, 19 explosive events deposited spatter on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. Many other smaller events weren’t large enough or weren’t located close enough to the crater rim to produce a recognizable deposit.

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Every day, Pele’s hair, Pele’s tears, tiny hollow spherules and other bizarre shapes are formed by thousands of gas bubbles bursting in the lake. Such bursts are technically explosive, but they constitute only background activity.

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In this Volcano Watch, we consider only those explosive events that left a significant deposit on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu. How can we rank these events in terms of size?

Volcanologists use the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI) to classify explosive eruptions by the volume of erupted material. The VEI, as currently defined, ranges from 8 to minus 6 (-6). A VEI of 8 has a volume of 1 trillion cubic meters or more—a cube 10,000 meters (more than 6 miles) per side. A VEI of -6 has a volume of 0.1–0.01 cubic meters (the size of a few ice cubes).

Three of the 2008 explosive events rate as VEI -2 (100–1,000 cubic meters; a house and garage), four as VEI -3 (10–100 cubic meters; a moderate-size living room), and one as VEI -4 (1–10 cubic meters; much smaller than an average room).

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All explosive events since 2008 are either VEI -3 or VEI -4, mostly near the border between the two classes. None comes close to matching the three larger 2008 events.

The Aug. 6 event rates a VEI of -3.

Another important factor is the depth below the crater rim at which the explosive event takes place. For a given size, more material will reach the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu if the depth is shallower; the ejected material has less distance to travel.

We don’t know the depths of the explosive events in 2008 or the two in 2009, except that they were certainly more than 150 m (492 feet).

In contrast, all explosive events have been shallower than 150 m since 2011, when frequent measurements of the depth to the lava lake were started using a laser rangefinder.

For example, the Aug. 6 event occurred at a depth of 125 m (410 feet).

Three explosive events in April-May 2015 took place when the lake level was unusually high, 85–90 m (279–295 feet) below the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater rim. Two of those events were so small that spatter might not have reached the rim had the explosion been deeper.

All the explosive events were triggered by rockfalls from the walls of Overlook crater, which contains the lava lake. Those walls are becoming more stable with time, as overhangs are destroyed. Evidence of increasing stability is the low amount of solid rock material erupted daily from the crater, now averaging less than 5% of the total daily ejecta.

Nonetheless, unstable portions of the wall remain. One is under the old visitor overlook on the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater rim. Even small explosive events caused by failure of this part of the wall can throw spatter onto the overlook area. That happened on Jan. 8 and Aug. 6 of this year. Had these events taken place farther away, as did most earlier ones, the amount of spatter that fell at the overlook would have been much less.

Eventually this part of the wall will stabilize, but it probably hasn’t yet. We will not be surprised if another shower of spatter lands in the overlook area in the next few months.

On Aug. 6, 2016, a rockfall from the steep walls of Overlook crater, which contains Kīlauea Volcano’s summit lava lake, triggered an explosive event that deposited spatter (molten lava) and solid rock fragments on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. That event was just the latest in a series of explosions that began in 2008. In this photo, the surface of the lava lake has a silvery sheen, and two areas of vigorous spattering appear orange in color. USGS photo.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kīlauea continues to erupt at its summit and East Rift Zone.

During the past week, the summit lava lake level varied between about 29.5 m and 33.5 m (97–110 feet) below the vent rim within Halema‘uma‘u Crater.

On the East Rift Zone, the “61g” flow continued to advance across the coastal plain and enter the ocean. The lava flow does not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Seismicity remains elevated relative to the long-term background rate. Global Positioning System measurements show deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit and upper Southwest Rift Zone, with inflation occurring mainly in the southwestern part of the magma storage complex.

One earthquake was reported felt on the Island of Hawaiʻi in the past week. On Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, at 11:07 a.m., HST, a magnitude-3.4 earthquake occurred 57.0 km (35.4 mi) southwest of Captain Cook at a depth of 43.6 km (27.1 mi).

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

Call for summary updates at (808) 967-8862 (Kīlauea) or (808) 967-8866 (Mauna Loa); email questions to [email protected].

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