Volcano Watch: New research sheds light on relationship between Hilina fault system and large earthquakes

  • Courtesy of INGRID JOHANSON The Hilina Pali on Kilauea Volcano’s south flank is visible evidence of the steep Hilina fault system. Beneath this system lies the flat-lying decollement fault that has no visible surface expression but was responsible for the May 4, 2018, magnitude-6.9 earthquake.

The pali (cliffs) of Kilauea’s south flank are some of the volcano’s most striking features.

Reaching up to 500 m (1,500 ft) high, they stand out against the otherwise gentle slopes of Hawaii’s most active shield volcano. These pali, including the Hilina Pali, Holei Pali and others, are often referred to as faults, and are together called the Hilina fault system. The faults form head-scarps; the above-ground evidence for a large landslide called the Hilina slump.


Offshore seismic reflection surveys (similar to doing an ultrasound on the earth) show rock and rubble layers consistent with the Hilina slump extending to about 4 km (2.5 mi) below the surface, and its leading edge to be about 22 km (13 mi) offshore. While the size of the slump and the possibility of catastrophic landslide can be alarming, the seismic reflection data also show that there is good news.

The good news is courtesy of the decollement fault below Kilauea’s south flank.

The decollement fault is a nearly horizontal fault at the boundary of the original ocean floor and overlying volcanic rocks. It lies deeper below the surface than the Hilina slump, but although they are right on top of each other, current evidence shows the two are not connected. Instead, the Hilina slump rides on top of the portion of the island moving with the decollement.

It was the decollement fault that was responsible for last summer’s magnitude-6.9 earthquake and for the magnitude-7.7 Kalapana earthquake in 1975. Slow movement on this fault also is responsible for moving the south flank steadily seaward and for episodic slow slip events that nudge the flank an additional several centimeters (just more than an inch) farther every 3-4 years.

When the decollement fault slips, the overriding rocks move seaward and slightly up. Throughout many thousands of years, the slight upward motion caused a ridge to form in the ocean floor where the fault approaches the surface. In 2003, scientists from Rice University concluded this ridge acts as a backstop, making it more difficult for the large Hilina slump to slide. This is similar to how a bookend prevents books from sliding down a shelf.

In this way, continued slip on the decollement helps prevent catastrophic landslides. However, decollement slip also produces large earthquakes that can affect the slump. In 1975, two faults in the Hilina fault system moved by more than a meter (yard) during the magnitude-7.7 Kalapana earthquake. The magnitude-6.9 earthquake in 2018 resulted in a lot of questions from the public about whether it might trigger slump motion. However, in the days that followed, there was no evidence for widespread motion of the Hilina slump.

Indeed, scientists recently reanalyzed deformation data on Kilauea’s south flank and found only a few isolated portions of the Hilina fault system moved, mostly by less than a centimeter (half-inch). The only location with substantial movement during the earthquake was a short (2.5-km, 1.5-mile) segment of a previously unmapped fault near the earthquake’s epicenter. Furthermore, data from the 17 years prior to the magnitude-6.9 earthquake showed no resolvable motion of the Hilina fault during that time period.

Despite triggering motion on the pali, no catastrophic failure of the slump occurred in either 1975 or 2018. Plus, in 2018 motion is attributed to only the shallowest part of the slump, not the entire structure. This assures us that some motion can occur at the surface without that motion continuing deeper in the slump and generating widespread failure.

Taken all together, these observations suggest movement on the Hilina fault system occurs only very occasionally and perhaps only together with the very largest earthquakes, such as the 1975 Kalapana earthquake. The Hilina fault system certainly plays a role in Kilauea’s complex dynamics, and understanding that role is important in order to know the full range of hazards on the volcano.

The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory continues to monitor motion on Kilauea’s south flank to better determine the area’s hazard potential.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting and its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Normal. Reflecting this level, HVO is now issuing monthly updates for Kilauea. For definitions of the alert levels, see https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_alerts.html.

Monitoring data for deformation have shown no significant changes in Kilauea activity during the past week. Rates of seismicity across the volcano remain low. Sulfur dioxide emission rates are low at the summit and below detection limits at Pu‘u ‘O‘o and the lower East Rift Zone.

At or near the 2018 LERZ eruptive fissures, elevated ground temperatures and minor releases of gas (steam, tiny amounts of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide) persist. These are typical post-eruption conditions and are expected to be long term, as they were after the 1955 LERZ eruption.

The water level at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u continues to slowly rise. HVO is monitoring the pond closely, and under the current conditions its presence in the crater has not increased the risk to public safety.

Hazards remain at the lower ERZ and summit of Kilauea. Residents and visitors near the 2018 fissures, lava flows and summit collapse area should heed Hawaii County Civil Defense and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closures and warnings. The 2018 lava flows are primarily on private property, and people are asked to be respectful and not enter or park on private property.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Advisory. This alert level does not mean an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption is certain. A similar increase in activity occurred between 2014 and 2018 and no eruption occurred.

This past week, approximately 60 small-magnitude earthquakes (all less than M2.5) occurred beneath the upper elevations of Mauna Loa. Deformation measurements show continued summit inflation, suggestive of recharge of the volcano’s shallow magma storage system. No significant changes in volcanic gas release on the Southwest Rift Zone were measured, and fumarole temperatures there and at the summit remain unchanged.

Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly. For more information about the status of the volcano, go to https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna_loa/status.html

Two earthquakes with three or more felt reports occurred in Hawaii this past week: a magnitude-3.1 quake 6 km (4 mi) southwest of Kailua-Kona at 10 km (6 mi) depth at 7:54 p.m. Aug. 22 and a magnitude-4.2 quake 57 km (35 mi) southeast of Pahala at 46 km (29 mi) depth at 4:33 a.m. Aug. 22.

HVO continues to closely monitor Kilauea and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.


Visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.