Saturday, October 6, 2001


Chances of south side of
Kilauea sliding into sea
soon 'slim, none'


"Volcano Watch" often responds to a question from an interested citizen. A resident of Makawao, Maui, asked about the stability of Kilauea and whether its south flank could slide away during an eruption of Mauna Loa.

A concern about Kilauea's stability has been raised many times in the past. The facts are often embellished, and the result is that the south side of Kilauea is thought by some to be teetering on the brink of wholesale collapse.

The facts are these. Part of the south flank of Kilauea is cut by faults, known collectively as the Hilina fault system, which more or less parallels the coastline. Hilina Pali, Poliokeawe Pali and Holei Pali are three of the better-known faults.

During large earthquakes, such as the magnitude-7.9 in 1868 and the magnitude-7.2 in 1975, the faults drop down suddenly. The observed dropping has been as much as 11.5 feet in an instant. Local tsunamis accompanied both of these earthquakes and presumably others before them. Such a tsunami is very dangerous because it starts so close to shore.

The coastal part of the Hilina fault system is currently moving seaward at a maximum observed rate of 3 to 4 inches each year. It is also going up very slowly or remaining at about the same elevation. This works against the long-term subsidence of the entire island, which is sinking because of its great weight, and the global rise in sea level.

Faulting will eventually drop the coastline again. The southwest rift zone of Kilauea is quite stable, as is the south flank of Kilauea, both east and west of the Hilina fault system. The only areas moving much are the Hilina fault system and the sector between it and the east rift zone.

Consequently, we cannot say that the entire south side of Kilauea is currently unstable. That may be what some geophysical models say, but the data tell us otherwise.

Another fact is that the sea-floor topography around each Hawaiian island reflects large-scale underwater landslides in the geologic past. The sea floor is complex off the Hilina fault system, showing in places evidence for landslides and in other places evidence for huge, almost horizontal faults.

We do not know if any submarine fault is currently moving, though a long-term GPS experiment by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography may resolve this issue in a year or two.

Kilauea has had no massive landslide in the last 100,000 years, nor is there evidence for a huge landslide anywhere in Hawaii in that time. The chances of the south side of Kilauea suddenly peeling away into the sea are, in Dizzy Dean's famous words, "slim and none."

The questioner from Maui wanted to know if swelling of Mauna Loa before or during an eruption might exert enough pressure against Kilauea to push the south flank catastrophically into the ocean. We think this unlikely.

One of Mauna Loa's largest eruptions ever, in 1950, took place along the southwest rift zone but had no impact on Kilauea. Mauna Loa is currently not swelling much, if at all, and the western part of Kilauea stands almost stock still. It is hard to imagine a situation in which the slight swelling accompanying a future eruption of Mauna Loa would have any major impact on Kilauea.

The Great Crack, part of Kilauea's southwest rift zone, is a large eruptive fissure similar to several along the east rift zone, though longer and wider. It is not undergoing unusual deformation and is not a gash where the south flank of Kilauea is starting to tear away from the rest of the island. Its name conjures up something mysterious, and so it has become part of the lore about impending doom awaiting Kilauea.

As an earlier "Volcano Watch" put it, we need to be realistic and worry about things that will happen within a time period of several generations, such as the 1975 and 1868 earthquakes and tsunamis, and not the things that happen in a time period of 100,000 years or more.


Kilauea eruption continues unabated

Eruptive activity of Kilauea Volcano continued unabated at the Pu'u 'O'o vent during the past week. Lava moves away from the vent toward the ocean in a network of tubes and descends Pulama pali in several separate tubes.

Many breakouts from the tube system feed surface flows above, on, and below the pali in the coastal flats. During the night of Sept. 28, the western flow entered the ocean at Kamoamoa and is now building a new bench.

Lava also continues to enter the ocean in the area east of Kupapau and provides visitors to the county's lava viewing area a great show.

The public is reminded that the benches of the two ocean entries are very hazardous, with possible collapses of the new land.

The steam clouds are extremely hot, highly acidic and laced with glass particles.

Swimming at the black-sand beaches off the benches can be a blistering or even deadly venture.

One earthquake was reported felt during the week ending Thursday. Residents of Kapulena and Ahualoa felt an earthquake at 6:27 p.m. on Sept. 28. The magnitude-3.0 earthquake was located 6.6 miles east-northeast of Hawi at a depth of 18.4 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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