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Kahaualea 2 lava flow: Should Puna residents be concerned?


The Kahaualea 2 lava flow, fed by a vent on the northeast edge of the Puu Oo crater, is currently the only active flow along Kilauea volcano’s east rift zone. In recent weeks, this flow has been the topic of several media reports, causing concern in Puna communities downhill from the flow.

It’s important for concerned residents to know that USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists are diligently monitoring the Kahaualea 2 lava flow, tracking its progress through boots-on-the-ground mapping, helicopter overflights, webcam images and satellite data.

Equally important is that HVO scientists work closely with the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, which monitors all potential threats and impacts of Kilauea’s east rift zone eruption, including potential fire hazards associated with the Kahaualea 2 lava flow.

Throughout this ongoing eruption, whenever any change in lava flow activity translated to a possible threat or impact to nearby communities, HVO immediately relayed the hazard information to Hawaii County Civil Defense, which took appropriate action to keep people safe. This same collaboration exists with the Kahaualea 2 lava flow.

Knowledge can ease worry, so here are the facts about the Kahaualea 2 lava flow as of Thursday — when this article was written.

For most of the past year, the Kahaualea 2 flow slowly advanced to the northeast, a direction that might seem alarming, given that Kilauea’s ongoing eruption has mostly sent lava flows to the south during the past 31 years. But this trend is not a first.

Lava also flowed northeast of Puu Oo episodically between 1983 and 1986 and for four months in 2007. In early 2013, the predecessor to the Kahaualea 2 flow crept 3 miles to the northeast before stopping in mid-April 2013. The Kahaualea 2 lava flow then began in early May 2013 and reached its most distal point to date — 5.2 miles northeast of Puu Oo — on April 9.

Several residential subdivisions north and west of Pahoa and a section of Highway 130 are downhill from the Kahaualea 2 lava flow. So, should Puna residents be worried about the flow now or in the future?

Given its slow and erratic forward progress, the Kahaualea 2 flow does not pose an immediate threat to any Puna subdivision at this time. The longer this nonthreatening activity continues, the more likely it is that the vent will be disrupted, sending lava in a different direction. Such a disruption may have started Tuesday, but it is too soon to determine its full impact.

The Kahaualea 2 flow has advanced only 0.75 mile in the past five months. Two factors contribute to this slow, inconsistent progress: low eruption rate — Kilauea’s current eruption rate is estimated to be half its long-term average, and recurring deflation-inflation events.

During inflation, lava feeds the flow, allowing it to advance. But during deflation, the lava supply can be disrupted, causing the flow to stall. Then, with the return to inflation, the flow reactivates, but the “new” lava typically breaks out well behind the stalled flow front.

This unsteady forward movement explains why the Kahaualea 2 flow front was mapped at 5.2 miles northeast of Puu Oo on April 9, compared with 4.7 miles on April 18.

Thanks to recent abundant rainfall, lava-ignited fires are not spreading through forest far beyond the flow margin. But, depending on wind direction, residents in downwind areas might occasionally detect smoke from small, localized brush fires adjacent to the flow.

What about the Kahaualea 2 flow’s future activity?

Whether or not the lava flow becomes a threat to Puna residents will depend on the eruption rate and the flow’s advance rate in the coming months. Therefore, HVO will maintain a close watch on the flow’s progress, and Hawaii County Civil Defense will continue monitoring potential threats to people and property.

What should concerned residents do at this time? Your best action is to stay informed. Here’s how.

Read HVO’s daily updates on Kilauea’s eruptions, including details about and current maps of the Kahaualea 2 lava flow, posted at hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php. Sign up to receive Hawaii County Civil Defense alerts by emailing civildefense@co.hawaii.hi.us or calling 935-0031.

The only “constant” on Kilauea is “change.” So, changes to the Kahaualea 2 lava flow — for better or for worse — can be expected, underscoring the need for residents to keep informed.

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within Halemaumau produced nighttime glow visible via HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lake level fluctuated between about 161 feet and 115 feet below the rim of the overlook crater.

On Kilauea’s east rift zone, the active front of the Kahaualea 2 flow was 4.7 miles northeast of its vent on Puu Oo when mapped April 18. Webcam images indicate that small, lava-sparked forest fires continue to burn. In addition, a spatter cone on the northern edge of Puu Oo’s crater floor began erupting just before midnight Tuesday. Webcam images indicate these flows were still weakly active Thursday.

There were two earthquakes in the past week that were felt on Hawaii Island. At 11:52 a.m. April 19, a magnitude 3.3 earthquake occurred 6 miles southwest of Paauilo at a depth of 26 miles. At 8:20 a.m. Tuesday, a magnitude 3.1 earthquake occurred 3 miles southwest of Volcano Village at a depth of 2 miles.

Visit hvo.wr.usgs.gov for Volcano Awareness Month articles and Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.