The give and take of climate, weather, and Kilauea volcano


Variable weather and extreme weather events are familiar here in Hawaii nei. While we were lucky in the gentle passing of Tropical Storm Flossie a few weeks ago, questions are being posed worldwide on how changes in global climate are affecting weather patterns and extreme weather events.

Some questions are unique to Hawaii: How do changes in local weather patterns influence the impacts of Kilauea volcano’s long-running eruptions on surrounding human and natural environments? Has Kilauea’s eruptive activity influenced local and regional weather or global climate?

A rise in the amount of volcanic pollution from Kilauea began in 2008, with the onset of the summit eruption in Halemaumau Crater. The increased emission of volcanic gases and particles has affected agriculture, as well as the natural and human environments.

The severity of impacts from Kilauea’s volcanic plume is determined by the amount of toxic gases and particles emitted, and local wind conditions. While, for some, the memory of frequent vog events during spring 2013 has largely been erased by more recent pictures of a fine summer, the frequent absence of trade winds during March through May caused environmental challenges for East Hawaii residents and agricultural producers whose crops and livestock were impacted by volcanic plumes. Residents as far away as Oahu reported distress as the disruption of trades sent volcanic emissions north along the island chain. Kilauea’s emissions were relatively constant during this period; the wind was the main culprit this time.

During this period, the EPA’s primary one-hour health standard for SO2 gas at the Jaggar Museum measurement site near Halemaumau was exceeded for 37-hour time spans, compared to 9 to 19 hours for the same period during 2010, 2011 and 2012. This National Park site can be considered a good indicator of the higher frequency of poor air-quality events for East Hawaii communities, in general. In considering potential changes in local weather patterns due to larger-scale climate change, it is practical to take into account how shifts in trade winds affect our island community.

There is evidence the trade wind regime has changed in the last 30 years. Researchers from the University of Hawaii have recently shown a decrease in the frequency of the northeasterly trades, with a shift to more easterly winds. While Hawaii residents are familiar with the effects of absent trade winds, the full impact of this more subtle change will be revealed with time. In addition to considering the effects of climate and weather on the distribution of Kilauea’s emissions, it is also important to consider their potential impact on local and regional weather and climate, as well as on the Earth’s energy balance.

Aerosols — fine solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in a gas — such as those associated with Kilauea’s emissions, can directly modify Earth’s ability to reflect radiation by absorbing and scattering incoming solar radiation. They can also indirectly affect the amount of incoming radiation reflected back into space — known as the planetary albedo — by increasing the amount of clouds and their ability to reflect radiation. These indirect processes, while not well quantified, have an important effect on Earth’s energy balance.

Kilauea’s eruptions are currently serving as a natural experiment for exploring the impact of aerosols on Earth’s climate. Recent space-based studies examining the atmospheric effects of Kilauea’s plume have shown that trade wind cumulus cloud patterns are very sensitive to the presence of aerosols; thus, continuous eruptions, such as Kilauea’s, may have a greater effect on climate than previously thought. The studies have confirmed that Kilauea’s plume is associated with an increased number and reduced size of cloud droplets, reduced precipitation, and increased cloud brightness, size, and coverage. Aerosol-cloud interaction results in an increase in the amount of solar radiation reflected back into space.

These new findings have potentially far-reaching implications: they can help shape our understanding of how continuously degassing volcanoes, such as Kilauea, contribute to regional and global climate and lead to improved climate models. In terms of impacts from volcanic emissions, our backyard volcano continues to play an important role, both on the local and global stage.

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within the Halemaumau overlook vent produced nighttime glow visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and via HVO’s webcam during the past week. A small deflation-inflation cycle early in the week at the summit caused the lava lake level to fluctuate about 36 feet. As of Thursday, the lake level had risen again to within about 125 feet of the floor of Halemaumau.

On Kilauea’s east rift zone, scattered breakouts from the Peace Day tube remain active on the coastal plain. A small ocean entry is active just east of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundary. The Kahaualea 2 flow, fed from a spatter cone on the northeast edge of the Puu Oo crater, continues to be active and is burning forest north of Puu Oo.

There were three felt earthquakes in the past week across Hawaii Island. At 7:19 p.m. Aug. 9, a magnitude-2.6 earthquake occurred 3 miles north of Opihikao at a depth of 2 miles. At 5:54 a.m. Aug. 11, a magnitude-4.8 earthquake occurred 5 miles south of Kilauea summit at a depth of 20 miles, followed by a magnitude-3.4 aftershock at 6:06 a.m. in the same area.

Visit hvo.wr.usgs.gov for Volcano Awareness Month details 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.