Volcano Watch: Is Kilauea’s summit and rift zone activity pau or paused?

  • I. JOHANSON/U.S. Geological Survey photo On Aug. 9, visibly active lava on Kilauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone was limited to a small pond deep with the fissure 8 cone and small streams of lava oozing into the ocean near Isaac Hale Beach Park (shown here) and at Kapoho Bay. USGS scientists are closely monitoring the volcano, watching for any signs that might indicate if Kilauea’s rift zone eruption and summit subsidence are pau or paused.

NOTE: This article was written Aug. 9. Given Kilauea Volcano’s dynamic nature, activity described here could change in coming days. For up-to-date information, find daily status reports at https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/status.html.

Since the morning of Aug. 4, activity at Kilauea Volcano’s summit and in its lower East Rift Zone has diminished dramatically — and the slowdown continues.

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But what does it mean?

Are Kilauea’s fissure 8 lava flow and summit collapses pau (over)?

Or are they merely paused (taking a break)?

Here’s the situation as of Aug. 9:

At Kilauea’s summit, earthquake counts — which were 30-40 per hour in prior weeks — have decreased to as few as 1-2 per hour. A collapse event has not occurred since Aug. 2, and no significant subsidence has been evident since Aug. 4. Major rockfalls within Halema‘uma‘u and along the summit caldera walls have not been observed the past few days. Monitoring instruments show little change in summit deformation and seismicity.

On the volcano’s LERZ, the eruption of lava and emission of sulfur dioxide gas have decreased dramatically. Only a small pond of crusted lava remains deep within the fissure 8 cone and the lava channel is mostly empty. The ocean entry is minimally active, with small streams of lava oozing into the ocean, mostly near Isaac Hale Beach Park, and the laze plume is diminished.

Earthquake and deformation data continue to show no net storage or withdrawal of subsurface magma.

At Pu‘u ‘O‘o in Kilauea’s middle East Rift Zone, a white plume was observed above the cone in recent weeks. On Aug. 2-3, gas measurements indicated SO2 emissions at Pu‘u ‘O‘o increased significantly. Since then, however, SO2 values decreased to low levels of the past three months. Coincident with the summit activity slowdown, deflation along the middle East Rift Zone stalled.

Why the LERZ eruption and summit subsidence abated so quickly is not certain, but one possibility is that it could be a response to reduced magma supply to the LERZ as the summit reservoir progressively emptied. It might also reflect a blockage within the magma system between the summit and the LERZ; however, the lack of seismicity and deformation, which generally indicate pressurization associated with a blockage, suggest this is perhaps unlikely. Other possibilities also exist.

The changes at Kilauea were not completely unexpected. Subtle hints of decreasing lava effusion and changes in summit collapse characteristics, detected as early as mid-July, included decreasing background summit tilt rate, increasing repose times between summit collapses and fluctuating fissure 8 lava output.

The significance of these changes is not clear. It’s possible the slowdown is just a pause, and that an East Rift Zone eruption and subsidence at the summit of Kilauea could resume. In 1955, two pauses of five and 16 days occurred during that 88-day LERZ eruption.

It’s also possible that the slowdown reflects the end of the LERZ eruption and summit subsidence. But it will take days, or possibly weeks, to determine with certainty if the activity is pau or merely paused.

What we know for sure is that hazardous conditions remain in both areas of Kilauea.

LERZ hazards include:

• Possible reactivation of existing fissures or the opening of new fissures, leading to new lava flows and inundation.

• Still-hot, unstable lava in the fissure 8 flow field.

• Ongoing, albeit lower, sulfur dioxide gas emissions.

• Potential hydrovolcanic explosions, lava delta collapse and laze plumes at the ocean entry.

Summit hazards include:

• Additional and potentially damaging earthquakes.

• Additional rockfalls, ground cracking and collapse of crater walls.

• Ash deposits resuspended by strong winds.

• Potential gas- or groundwater-driven explosions.

The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is closely monitoring Kilauea. This includes overflights of the volcano’s East Rift Zone and summit as needed, supplemented with USGS drone flights. Daily visual observations also are conducted from the ground, with USGS field crews deployed in the LERZ and summit areas to collect data and document activity, as well as to install and repair monitoring instruments.

HVO continues to issue daily status reports, and posts photos, videos and maps on our website, to keep emergency managers and the public informed.

Stay tuned as we work to answer the question — pau or paused?

Volcano activity update

Activity on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone and at the summit of the volcano remained greatly diminished as of Aug. 9. LERZ activity was limited to a small pond of lava deep within the fissure 8 cone and small streams of lava entering the ocean near Isaac Hale Beach Park and at Kapoho Bay. Summit earthquakes were greatly reduced, with only 1-2 per hour. The last collapse event occurred Aug. 2, and no significant subsidence has been observed since Aug. 4. However, hazardous conditions remain in both areas. Residents in the lower Puna and Kilauea summit areas should stay informed and heed Hawaii County Civil Defense closures, warnings and messages (www.hawaiicounty.gov/active-alerts). HVO daily status reports are posted at https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/status.html.

At Mauna Loa, HVO geophysical monitoring networks indicate that earthquakes and deformation are near background levels, and the USGS Volcano Alert level for the volcano remains at Normal. HVO continues to monitor the volcano closely and will report any significant changes.

Eighteen earthquakes were reported felt in Hawaii this past week, a drop from reports in recent weeks.

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Visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea daily eruption updates, Mauna Loa weekly updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Call for summary updates at 808-967-8862 (Kilauea) or 808-967-8866 (Mauna Loa). Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo/hvo_volcano_watch.html) is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.