Volcano Watch: Kīlauea’s 1952 Summit Eruption Ended Long Period of Inactivity

June 11, 2020, 1:49 PM HST (Updated June 11, 2020, 1:49 PM)
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Two small spatter cones, within a larger cone, are outgassing on the floor of Halema‘uma‘u Crater. A lava pond, approximately 30 m (100 ft) in diameter, is visible between the small cones. This photograph is looking westward, taken from the southeastern rim of the crater by G. Macdonald on August 27, 1952.

On June 27, 1952, an eruption started at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano, ending a period of quiescence that had lasted nearly 18 years.

During the nearly two decades of quiet on Kīlauea following a summit eruption in 1934, there were several periods of increased earthquake activity and deformation beneath the summit. However, none of these phases of unrest resulted in an eruption.

Early in April 1952, a series of earthquakes began along Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone and beneath the summit. The earthquakes, accompanied by summit inflation, persisted through May and June.

At approximately 11:40 p.m. on June 27, an eruption commenced at the summit. A loud roaring and bright glow emanating from Halema‘uma‘u Crater alerted residents and staff in proximity to Kīlauea Caldera of the new eruption.

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Within minutes of the eruption onset, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) staff were on their way to the office located on Uēkahuna bluff. From HVO, a fountain erupting on the southwestern edge of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater floor was visibly over-topping the crater rim, nearly 800 feet higher. The fountain quickly waned and by 11:55 p.m. was no longer visible from the bluff.

HVO staff reached the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook 30 minutes after the eruption began. A 0.5-mile-long fissure crossed the entire floor of Halema’uma’u crater, and pooled lava had completely covered the crater floor.  A detailed account of the eruptions early hours can be found in this “Volcano Watch” article.

The lake of lava had plates of cooled crust on its surface separated by cracks that provided views of the incandescent molten lava below — much like the smaller 2008 to 2018 lava lake within the Halema‘uma‘u “Overlook crater.” The fountaining lava created waves over the surface of the lake that emanated outward from the fissure to the crater walls.

Observers also noted seeing occasional whirlwinds on the lake surface that threw pieces of crust, up to a meter across, several meters into the air. This same phenomenon was observed in 2018 over the fissure 8 lava channel.

After the initial hours of the eruption, the lava fountains began to subside. After a little more than four hours, only the northeastern quarter of the fissure was active, and observers thought that the eruption could be ending. Shortly after, however, the southwestern end of the fissure reactivated with low bubbling fountains, and by that time Halema‘uma‘u Crater was estimated to have been filled with a lake of lava approximately 50 feet deep.

During the first two weeks of the eruption, small lava fountains continued to pop up along the surface of the lava lake.

By July 11 the active length of the fissure had shortened to approximately 400 feet. Two main fountains persisted and began to build a large cinder and spatter cone within the lava lake. Gaps within the cone wall allowed lava to spill out and feed the surrounding lava lake, which had shrunk from a peak of 100 acres on June 28 to about 34 acres by early August. The lava lake within Halema‘uma‘u Crater in early 2018 paled in comparison, at approximately 10.4 acres.

By the end of August, most of the erupted lava was contained within the large cone, where two active vents were building smaller spatter cones. Between the two spatter cones, there was a small lava pond that had an average diameter of about 100 feet.

This continued — with occasional lava flows on the floor of Halema‘uma‘u Crater — for the next few months until the eruption ended after 136 days on Nov. 10.

Approximately 64,000,000 cubic yards of erupted lava was confined within Halema‘uma‘u Crater. The eruption filled the crater with 310 feet of new lava — raising the floor from 770 feet to 460 feet below the rim. For comparison, the Halema‘uma‘u Crater floor prior to the 2018 summit collapse was approximately 260 feet below the rim.

After nearly two decades of quiet on Kīlauea Volcano, the 1952 eruption ended the longest eruptive pause on Kīlauea in (at least) the past 200 years.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kīlauea Volcano is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at NORMAL, and Kīlauea updates are issued monthly.

Kīlauea monitoring data for the past month show variable but typical rates of seismicity and ground deformation, low rates of sulfur dioxide emissions, and only minor geologic changes since the end of eruptive activity in September 2018. The water lake at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u continues to slowly expand and deepen. For the most current information on the lake, go online.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption from the current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.

This past week, about 107 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded beneath the upper-elevations of Mauna Loa. Most of these occurred at shallow depths of less than 8 five miles. Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements show long-term slowly increasing summit inflation, consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures as measured at both Sulphur Cone and the summit remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape.

For more information on the current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, go online.

There were three events with three or more felt reports in the Hawaiian islands during the past week: a magnitude-3.4 earthquake four miles NE of Pāhala at a 21-mile depth on June 10 at 5:57 p.m. HST, a magnitude-3.2 earthquake three miles NNW of Pāhala at a 22-mile depth on June 10 at 5:05 p.m. HST, and a magnitude-2.8 earthquake four miles E of Pāhala at a 21-mile depth on June 9 at 10:59 a.m. HST.

HVO continues to closely monitor both Kīlauea and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.

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