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Volcano Watch: The ongoing Puu Oo eruption is full of anniversaries

Updated: 
August 19, 2017 - 2:21am

The longest-lived and most voluminous rift-zone eruption of Kilauea Volcano in more than 500 years — the ongoing Puu Oo eruption — began in January 1983, and is fast approaching its 35th anniversary. So many lava flows, cones, deltas, and other features have formed from eruptions at different vents for varying periods of time that nearly every day is an anniversary for Puu Oo.

Last month marked the first anniversary of the 61g lava flow’s entry into the ocean at Kamokuna after traveling from Puu Oo 6.8 miles in two months.

Three years ago this week, the infamous June 27th lava flow was erupting from Puu Oo and spreading steadily eastward about 330 feet per day. On Aug. 18, 2014, lava spilled into the first of several deep ground cracks along the East Rift Zone.

This set in motion intense scrutiny of the flow’s day-to-day advance by HVO scientists, and contingency planning among Hawaii County and State governments, businesses, and residents.

The crack system is located about 6.2 miles northeast of Puu Oo. At the time, it seemed possible, perhaps likely, that the June 27th lava would keep moving northeast toward several communities in the Puna District.

On Aug. 20, HVO scientists discussed the progression of the flow and possible scenarios with the Hawaii County mayor and Civil Defense administrator, and their staffs and other interested parties should the same active vent at Puu Oo continue erupting lava for weeks to months, or longer.

On Aug. 24, the first of 28 public meetings in Pahoa and nearby communities was organized by the Mayor’s office to share information about the current eruption, status of the flow, possible scenarios based on HVO’s projected lava-flow paths, and the ways in which the County, State, and others were planning to mitigate the continued advance of the flow.

On Sept. 4, with lava advancing about 820 feet per day, HVO scientists estimated that the flow could reach Kaohe Homesteads subdivision within seven days — they raised the USGS Volcano Alert Level for Kilauea Volcano from WATCH to WARNING.

These one- and three-year anniversaries of events during the Puu Oo eruption are but two that help us appreciate two very different outcomes based on the interplay of several factors. These include location of the vent, robustness of lava-tube systems that develop in lava flows, slope of the ground, longevity of an erupting vent, and the variability in lava discharge from the vent day-to-day and week-to-week.

The June 27th and 61g vents are located only about 1/3 mile from each other, but their associated lava flows spilled into different drainages that were constructed by earlier eruptions at Puu Oo. This resulted in the June 27th flow spreading northeastward on the north side of the rift zone about 13.7 miles, and the 61g flow spreading south of the rift zone to the ocean in only 6.8 miles.

The 61g flow has erupted for 15 months thus far, with most of the lava flowing through the tube system and entering the ocean. The June 27th lava flow was active for 23 months, but the tube system was not able to supply most of the lava to the active flow fronts for the entire time. Why not?

The inconsistent lava discharge from the June 27th vent and the longer than 10-mile tube system on gentle ground both combined to interrupt or reduce, and eventually cut off lava supply to the flow fronts, thereby limiting the ultimate length of the flow. After the first four months, the flow fronts stalled at a distance of about 13.7 miles from Puu Oo, less than 0.6 miles from Highway 130. After nine months, in March 2015, the active parts of the flow retreated to less than 5 miles from the vent, much to the relief of Puna residents.

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

Volcano Activity Updates

This past week, Kilauea Volcano’s summit lava lake level varied 92-144 feet below the vent rim, with fluctuations in concert with summit inflation and deflation. On the East Rift Zone, the 61g flow remained active, with lava entering the ocean near Kamokuna and surface breakouts downslope of Puu Oo. The 61g flows do not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, small-magnitude earthquakes continued to occur beneath the volcano, primarily in the upper Southwest Rift Zone, at depths less than 3 miles. GPS measurements continue to show deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit and upper Southwest Rift Zone. No significant changes in volcanic gas emissions were measured.

One earthquake with three or more felt reports in the Hawaiian islands occurred during the past week. At 5:24 a.m. on Aug. 16, a magnitude-3.1 earthquake occurred 6.2 miles east-northeast of Honokaa at a depth of 9 miles.

Visit www.volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea daily eruption updates, Mauna Loa weekly updates, volcano photos, recent earthquakes info, and more. Call for summary updates at 967-8862 (Kilauea) or 967-8866 (Mauna Loa). Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

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