How long will Kilauea’s new eruption last?
Cracks open in the ground. Lava creeps across roads, swallowing cars and homes. Fountains of molten rock shoot up to 70 meters (230 feet) high, setting treetops on fire. Last week, after a month of rumbling warning signs, Hawaii’s most active volcano began a new phase of eruptions.
Kilauea (Kil-uh-way-uh) spewed clouds of steam and ash on May 3. Lava gushed forth through several new rifts — openings — on the volcano’s east slopes. Clouds of gas laden with toxic sulfur dioxide also burst from the rifts. This all-natural drama threatened many residents living in a community known as Leilani Estates. In all, some 1,700 were forced to flee homes directly in the path of the encroaching lava.
This is the 62nd eruption episode since 1983 along Kilauea’s eastern flank. The volcano is one of six that formed Hawaii’s Big Island over the past million years. Mauna Loa is the largest and most central peak. Kilauea, Mauna Kea, Hualalai and Kohala occupy the island’s edges. Mahukona is currently submerged. All six are shield volcanoes. That means they have broad flanks that were created by past flows of now-hardened lava.
As of May 7, activity had shifted to Kilauea’s southwest flank. That region continues to steam, although no new rifts have opened. Indeed, this eruption may be far from over, says Victoria Avery. She’s a volcanologist based in Reston, Va. She works in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program.
Science News for Students talked with Avery about Kilauea’s fury, the quakes it has been spawning and what to expect next. Her responses were edited for brevity and clarity.
(Q&A continues below video)
Q: Is there anything unusual about this eruption?
A: Not to scientists. It’s typical of what Kilauea volcano can do.
Q: Were there any warning signs?
A: We saw shallow earthquake activity under that area for several days. That tells us that molten rock is moving underground. We also saw that the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea was lowering. There’s a vent called Pu’u ‘O’o [which has erupted nearly continuously since 1983], and the floor of that collapsed on April 30. That told us that magma is being withdrawn and moved elsewhere. That collapse, plus the new [quaking], told us something was going to happen.
Q. On May 4, two large earthquakes measuring magnitude 5.6 and magnitude 6.9 shook the Big Island in quick succession. How are they related to the eruption?
A: It’s not frequent but not unusual for Hawaii to have an earthquake like that, because a volcano is a very dynamic place. The [surface swelling] associated with the eruption probably triggered the quake[s]: The magma pushed on the volcano from inside. The whole south flank of Kilauea is an area that has a history of large earthquakes. We didn’t directly anticipate it. But we weren’t that surprised when it happened.
Q: Did the people who live there know they were in a hazardous zone?
A: The eruption is right on one of the rift zones of the volcano. Those houses are right where we know it can erupt. Right now, [emergency managers] are allowing people back in briefly to check on their homes, but not allowing them to stay.
Q: How dangerous is the gas that’s also erupting with the lava?
A: The gas is chiefly carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The gas is actually what propels the [lava] to come out of the ground. Carbon dioxide in enough quantity can suffocate people. Sulfur dioxide can react with the atmosphere to create sulfuric acid. It forms vog — or volcanic fog — that can [worsen] asthma. That’s why they’re putting gas masks on people who go in to check on their homes.
Q: How are researchers monitoring this eruption?
A: We’re using the classic tools: instruments measuring seismicity and deformation, visual observations on the ground or flying over in helicopters, and thermal and deformation imagery from satellites. Using remote sensing, you can take [high-resolution images of ground elevation using a special type of radar] synthetic aperture radar (SAR) measurements at two different points in time to see the deformation. Hawaii is a supersite. So we get a lot of free SAR imagery over it, at about every two or three days. That may not be enough time for frequent eruption warnings, but it’s useful to monitor precursor activity and know what to look for. In the future, we’d like to use drones as well to monitor the eruptions.
Q: Nearby Mauna Loa is on Yellow Alert, since it’s showing signs of unrest. Is it at risk of erupting, too?
A: Mauna Loa really scares us. It is the largest volcano on the planet. It’s the big monster volcano of Hawaii. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984 but can pump out much larger volumes, and much faster. It has been yellow since September 2015, when there was elevated seismicity and deformation.
Q: What’s next? Does the lull in activity at Kilauea mean the eruption is almost over?
A: It’s likely only a pause. The seismicity and deformation can wane and then build up again. The best we can do is watch precursor phenomena 24/7. [Those include] the seismic data, the height of the lava lakes and the deformation of the volcano along the rift zone. Where it swells, the magma is underneath it. Where it goes down, the magma is withdrawing.
Q: The lava lake appears to be sinking again (as of May 6). Does that suggest more eruption is imminent?
A: It generally means that the lava is traveling down the rift zone. There’s likely more to come.
ash (in geology) Small, lightweight fragments of rock and glass spewed by volcanic eruptions.
asthma A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.
atmosphere The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.
carbon The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.
carbon dioxide (or CO2) A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels like oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.
cloud A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents. (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds.
data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
drone A remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft or missile.
dynamic An adjective that signifies something is active, changing or moving. (noun) The change or range of variability seen or measured within something.
earthquake A sudden and sometimes violent shaking of the ground, sometimes causing great destruction, as a result of movements within Earth’s crust or of volcanic action.
elevation The height or altitude at which something exists.
eruption (in geoscience) The sudden bursting or spraying of hot material from deep inside a planet or moon and out through its surface. Volcanic eruptions on Earth usually send hot lava, hot gases or ash into the air and across surrounding land. In colder parts of the solar system, eruptions often involve liquid water spraying out through cracks in an icy crust. This happens on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is covered in ice.
fire The burning of some fuel, creating a flame that releases light and heat.
fog A thick cloud of water droplets that touches the ground.
geological Adjective to describe things related to Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists.
lava Molten rock that comes up from the mantle, through Earth’s crust, and out of a volcano.
magma The molten rock that resides under Earth’s crust. When it erupts from a volcano, this material is referred to as lava.
magnitude (in geology) A number used to describe the relative size of an earthquake. It runs from 1 to more than 8 and is calculated by the peak ground motion as recorded by seismographs. There are several magnitude scales. One of the more commonly used ones today is known as the moment magnitude. It’s based on the size of a fault (crack in Earth’s crust), how much the fault slips (moves) during a quake, and the energy force that was required to permit that movement. For each increase in magnitude, an earthquake produces 10 times more ground motion and releases about 32 times more energy. For perspective, a magnitude 8 quake can release energy equivalent to detonating 6 million tons of TNT.
molten A word describing something that is melted, such as the liquid rock that makes up lava.
monitor To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.
phenomena Events or developments that are surprising or unusual.
precursor A substance from which some later thing is made. It may be a compound that will change into something else as a result of some chemical or biological reaction.
radar A system for calculating the position, distance or other important characteristic of a distant object. It works by sending out periodic radio waves that bounce off of the object and then measuring how long it takes that bounced signal to return. Radar can detect moving objects, like airplanes. It also can be used to map the shape of land — even land covered by ice.
remote sensing Collecting data about an object or area from a distance, such as by using satellite cameras to take images of Earth.
resident Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
satellite A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
seismicity The frequency and duration of earthquakes in an area. High seismicity means that there have been more earthquakes than usual in a region.
slope (in mathematics) The degree to which some line rises or falls from a strictly horizontal direction. A line that appears to rise as it moves to the right has a positive slope. One that appears to fall as runs to the right has a negative slope. Vertical lines have neither. Their slope is described as undefined.
suffocate To be unable to breathe, or to cause a person or other organism to be unable to breathe.
sulfur A chemical element with an atomic number of sixteen. Sulfur, one of the most common elements in the universe, is an essential element for life. Because sulfur and its compounds can store a lot of energy, it is present in fertilizers and many industrial chemicals.
sulfur dioxide A compound made of sulfur and oxygen. It is one of the pollutants that can form when a fossil fuel is burned. It’s also a gas naturally emitted during volcanic eruptions. Its scientific symbol is SO2 .
sulfuric acid A strong acid having the chemical formula H 2 SO 4 . Used as a drain cleaner and in lead-acid car batteries, the liquid is able to burn tissues and eat through metals and even rock.
survey (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.
synthetic An adjective that describes something that did not arise naturally, but was instead created by people. Many synthetic materials have been developed to stand in for natural materials, such as synthetic rubber, synthetic diamond or a synthetic hormone. Some may even have a chemical makeup and structure identical to the original.
thermal Of or relating to heat. (in meteorology) A relatively small-scale, rising air current produced when Earth’s surface is heated. Thermals are a common source of low level turbulence for aircraft.
threatened (in conservation biology) A designation given to species that are at high risk of going extinct. These species are not as imperiled however, as those considered “endangered.”
tool An object that a person or other animal makes or obtains and then uses to carry out some purpose such as reaching food, defending itself or grooming.
toxic Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.
U.S. Geological Survey (or USGS) This is the largest nonmilitary U.S. agency charged with mapping water, Earth and biological resources. It collects information to help monitor the health of ecosystems, natural resources and natural hazards. It also studies the impacts of climate and land-use changes. A part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS is headquartered in Reston, Va.
volcano A place on Earth’s crust that opens, allowing magma and gases to spew out from underground reservoirs of molten material. The magma rises through a system of pipes or channels, sometimes spending time in chambers where it bubbles with gas and undergoes chemical transformations. This plumbing system can become more complex over time. This can result in a change, over time, to the chemical composition of the lava as well. The surface around a volcano’s opening can grow into a mound or cone shape as successive eruptions send more lava onto the surface, where it cools into hard rock.
wane To diminish gradually in size or intensity
Government Report: USGS Volcano Hazards Program. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory status report. May 7, 2018.
Government Report: USGS Earthquake Hazards Program. M 6.9 – 16 km southwest of Leilani Estates, Hawaii. May 4, 2018.
Science Analysis: Brittany Brand. Lava, ash flows, mudslides and nasty gases: Good reasons to respect volcanoes. The Conversation. May 8, 2018.