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The Kahaualeʻa 2 Lava Flow Continues Its Slow, Erratic Advance

June 20, 2014

June 17, 2014, photo showing smoke produced by the incursion of the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow into native forest 7.0 km (4.3 miles) northeast of Puʻu ʻŌʻō, which is visible in the background. (USGS)

The following is this week’s edition of “Volcano Watch” from the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:

For the past several years, the amount of lava erupting from Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone has been well below the long-term output rate established earlier in the Puʻu ʻŌʻō eruption. In fact, calculations show that, since 2010, only about half as much lava is being erupted at any given time as before. The reason for this is unknown; maybe it is a consequence of the opening of Kīlauea’s summit eruptive vent in 2008 or perhaps it is a natural variability in the amount of magma arriving beneath the volcano from the earth’s mantle.

Nevertheless, the result has been less surface activity than “usual.” This continues to be evident with the Kahaualeʻa 2 lava flow, which has been active since May 2013. Moreover, cycles of deflation and inflation (DI events), which occur frequently at Kīlauea’s summit, repeatedly disrupt the supply of magma reaching Puʻu ʻŌʻō, causing the amount of lava feeding the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow to fluctuate dramatically.

The combination of these two factors—low effusion rate and repeated disruptions—has resulted in the erratic forward movement of the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow over the past year. This pattern of diminished momentum has important implications for communities downslope from the flow.

Initially, the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow advanced to the north, travelling 3.2 km (2.0 miles) before it stalled during a major disruption in lava supply in late July 2013. The flow restarted again closer to Puʻu ʻŌʻō in early August and made sporadic forward movement until late November 2013, when its front stalled 7.3 km (4.5 miles) northeast of Puʻu ʻŌʻō. By this time, a relatively well-established lava tube had developed up to about 5 km (3 miles) northeast from the vent, marking the limit to which the flow retreated.

When the flow resumed days later, it slowly reached 7.8 km (4.8 miles) northeast of Puʻu ʻŌʻō before stalling again in January 2014. Following the same “two steps forward–one step back” pattern, the flow front reached 8.3 km (5.2 miles) from the vent by early April before its movement was disrupted again.

The Kahaualeʻa 2 lava flow advanced yet again through late April and early May 2014. This period, however, was accompanied by more profound pressurization within the magma chamber beneath Kīlauea, as indicated by summit inflation and extension, which led to a relatively high lava level within the lava lake at Kīlauea’s summit.

In the East Rift Zone, the increased pressure manifested itself as (or was reflected in) new lava flows from several spatter cones on the floor of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater. This renewed filling of the crater brought lava to within just a few meters (yards) of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Webcams and other equipment positioned on the north rim of Puʻu ʻŌʻō. Sustained flows also topped much of the south rim of the crater, burying much of the southern flank of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō cone beneath a carapace of new lava.

This period of heightened activity came to a sudden end on May 10, 2014, when an abrupt deflation and increase in seismicity at Kīlauea’s summit marked the release of summit pressurization, likely a result of the intrusion of magma beneath the surface just south of the volcano’s summit. New lava flows within and around Puʻu ʻŌʻō quickly stagnated, and the forward momentum of the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow was disrupted after it had reached 8.8 km (5.5 miles) northeast of Puʻu ʻŌʻō.

Since late May, the summit of Kīlauea has been inflating once again, reaching a pressurization state similar to that prior to the May 2014 “intrusion.” The summit lava lake has also risen to a level comparable to its level in early May. Despite this, the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow has been even weaker than before, suggesting a fundamental change in the magmatic plumbing system. A handful of small breakouts, spread along the well-established lava tube within the flow, have crept forward since then, but as of mid-June 2014, had reached only 7.0 km (4.3 miles) from the vent.

With the current pressurized state of Kīlauea, and especially with the lack of much pressurization at Puʻu ʻŌʻō, we can’t help but wonder whether it will result in another small intrusion beneath Kīlauea’s summit, or perhaps in something even more significant, such as the March 2011 Kamoamoa fissure eruption along the volcano’s East Rift Zone. Then again, it may lead to nothing.

No matter how the current conditions on Kīlauea play out, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory will continue to monitor the volcano’s every move and will keep you informed about the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow through our daily eruption updates (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php).

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