Saturday, May 26, 2001


Kilauea rumbles, and
5 million cubic yards
of magma disappear

Excess lava creates dramatic flows

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

The last couple of weeks have been an exciting time to be studying active volcanism in Hawaii.

To start with, after several months of fairly constant effusion of lava and gas, emissions of sulfur dioxide gas doubled almost overnight, then tripled during the next few days.

The sulfur dioxide gas that is eventually released from Kilauea is dissolved in the magma, like gas bubbles dissolved in champagne. Increased gas emissions from the magma usually are associated with an increased supply of magma to the eruption. Sure enough, the increased gas emissions observed during the past weeks were accompanied by renewed pond activity within Pu'u 'O'o's crater for the first time in months, indicating that more magma was moving through the system.

On Sunday evening, several staff members from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the national park had an impromptu gathering at the observatory to puzzle over Kilauea's latest developments. It had been an exciting afternoon; within a little over an hour, much less time than a Kilauea heartbeat, a tiltmeter at the summit of the volcano near the observatory suggested that a volume of up to 5 million cubic yards of excess magma had entered and inflated the summit magma reservoir of the volcano. For perspective, a ready-mix truck holds about nine cubic yards of concrete.

About 20 minutes later, Pu'u 'O'o's cone began swelling in a similar manner. While this was happening, the magnitude of seismic tremor (low-level ground shaking associated with magma movement) beneath the summit and Pu'u 'O'o increased as well.

We were impressed by the 5 million cubic yards of magma, because this is a typical amount supplied to the eruption over the course of 10 days -- not an hour! Among our several questions was, If this much excess magma was intruding the summit reservoir and not being erupted, where would it go within the volcano, and what would happen next?

In nearly as short a time period as the inflation had occurred, one of our questions was answered. The summit tilt reversed, and a few hours later, instruments located on the rim of Pu'u 'O'o indicated that new lava was pouring onto its crater floor. Inflation and tremor at the cone and beneath Kilauea's summit subsided thereafter, and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff decided to go home and get some sleep. The pressure literally was off, or at least relieved.

By the next day, Monday, eruptive activity and gas emissions from the east rift seemed to be returning to normal. On Tuesday, however, no lava was visible except that draining from tubes at the coast, and we thought the eruption might be heading into a pause. This turned out to be only a temporary slowdown, not a stoppage.

By Wednesday morning, lava had reappeared on Pulama pali, and by the afternoon, field crews reported vigorous breakouts of lava above the pali between the 2,300- to 2,200-foot elevations.

This is hardly the end of even this episode of the story. As of this writing, Thursday afternoon, one of our original questions of Sunday night remains: Where did the 5 million cubic yards of excess magma go? Although we did see increased lava effusion at Pu'u 'O'o and on the flow field, we are confident that the amount of lava erupted during the past week was much less than this.

So if you happen upon an extra several million cubic yards of magma, it should still be hot, so don't touch it, but please return it to Kilauea. Some of us are still looking for it. But most likely, you won't find it, because it is probably stored below Pu'u 'O'o in space made available as the south side of Kilauea moves away from the rest of the volcano.

This article was written by scientists at the
U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.


Excess lava creates dramatic flows

Eruptive activity of Kilauea volcano fluctuated during the past week, and the volume of lava entering the ocean east of Kupapa'u reflected this fluctuation. The surge in lava production on Wednesday overwhelmed the tube system and resulted in three major breakouts. Surface flows provide visitors at the end of the Chain of Craters road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park a great display of lava cascading down Pulama pali.

One earthquake was reported during the week ending May 24: A resident of Pahala felt an earthquake at 4:26 p.m. May 24. The magnitude-3.2 earthquake was located 2.4 miles east of Pahala at a depth of 6.4 miles.


The Star-Bulletin introduces "Volcano Watch," a weekly column written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The writers will address the science and history of volcanos in Hawaii and elsewhere. It also will include a short, separate update on eruption activity on the Big Island.

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