Volcano Watch: Why is the 2018 lava still so hot?

  • K. MULLIKEN/U.S. Geological Survey

    Two Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologists document road cutting activities Aug. 7 on Highway 132. One geologist is taking visual photographs while the other is taking thermal photographs to make a tandem pair for comparison. The temperature of the solidified lava was measured to 425° C (800° F) at the digging site.

As roads are recut into Kilauea’s 2018 lava flow field, many have been surprised at how hot the lava remains under the surface, even though it is solidified.

Why is it still so hot?


The short and simple answer is that lava insulates itself very well.

Since last writing about this topic in a Feb. 28 “Volcano Watch” article, we now have more accurate calculations of lava thickness, cooling times and the relative proportions of the internal molten core to the exterior solid crust for Kilauea’s 2018 lava flow field.

Previous work by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists published in 1994 measured the cooling rate of pahoehoe lava at Kalapana. They found the upper crust of a basalt lava flow grows thicker as a function of the square root of time. In other words, the lava flow crust grows more slowly with time.

Therefore, thicker lava flows will take longer to become completely solid.

Lava erupts from Kilauea at a temperature of 1,150 degrees Celsius (2,100 degrees Fahrenheit). In 1917, Thomas Jaggar published results from the then-active Halema‘uma‘u lava lake that indicated basalt can remain molten at temperatures as low as 750-850 degrees C (1,380-1,560 degrees F).

For the calculations here, crust is considered solid when it is below 850 degrees C (1,560 degrees F) and crust is viscoelastic (semi-solid or malleable) at 850-1,070 degrees C (1,560-1,950 degrees F).

Additional insight comes from previous HVO studies of active lava lakes in Kilauea Iki, Makaopuhi and ‘Alae craters. By drilling into the cooled upper crusts of lava lakes within these craters, scientists documented that solidification takes decades — specifically the 44-m (140-ft)-thick 1959 Kilauea Iki lava lake, which took about 35 years to fully solidify. Today, its core is still hotter than 540 degrees C (1,000 degrees F).

Therefore, although the top surface of Kilauea’s 2018 lava flows are already solid and cool to the touch, just beneath the surface is still very hot.

Unmanned Aircraft System mapping in 2018 helped HVO create a lava flow thickness map. This map indicates that at the intersection known as “Four Corners” there is approximately 15 m (50 ft) of lava. Using this value and the equations from the 1994 study of the Kalapana lava flows, we can calculate how much of the 2018 flows have solidified.

During the 14 months since the end of the eruption last year, the upper 7.8 m (24 ft) and lower 5.5 m (18 ft) at “Four Corners” should already be solidified crust, and the middle 1.7 m (5.5 ft) should still be malleable.

It will take about three more years for the remaining 1.7 m (5.5 ft) of malleable lava over the “Four Corners” intersection to reach 850 degrees C (1,560 degrees F) and be completely solid.

When construction of new roads in the area expose hot temperatures just below the surface, the lava cooling profile is effectively reset. The newly-exposed surface will quickly lose heat, as if it were the original cooling surface.

This matches recent observations by road construction crews, who noticed hot rocks being exposed at a road cut along Highway 132. HVO geologists confirmed this in August, when temperatures of 425 degrees C (800 degrees F) were measured at the newly-cut road site.

Hot temperatures will remain several feet below the surface for now, and steam will likely be generated when there is rain.

Lava retains heat so well that thick flows take years to decades to completely solidify and even longer to cool off.

The UAS lava-flow thickness map indicates that over Kapoho Bay, the flow is more than 50 m (160 ft) thick. The maximum thickness of 250 m (820 ft) is located east of the bay in an area that was formerly offshore.

At both locations, the solid crusts will be the same thickness as at “Four Corners,” but the viscoelastic layer will be 4.7 m (15 ft). A thick molten inner core should exist within the ‘a‘a flow delta and have a thickness of 32 m (105 ft) in the bay and an astonishing 232 m (761 ft) at the eastern area of maximum thickness.

Although Kilauea’s 2018 eruption ended 14 months ago, it will be years before the lava flows emplaced on land are entirely solidified below 850 degrees C (1,560 degrees F) — and more than a century before the 250-m (820-ft)-thick area offshore fully solidifies.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting and its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at Normal (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_alerts.html). Updates for Kilauea are now issued monthly.

Kilauea monitoring data have shown no significant changes in volcanic activity. Rates of earthquake activity or seismicity across the volcano remain largely steady, with three periods of increased microseismic activity each lasting a couple of days. Sulfur dioxide emission rates are low at the summit and below detection limits at Pu‘u ‘O‘o and the lower East Rift Zone. The pond at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u, which began forming July 25, continues to slowly expand and deepen.

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.

During the past week, approximately 147 small-magnitude earthquakes (nearly all smaller than M2.0) were detected beneath the upper elevations of Mauna Loa. Most of the earthquakes occurred at shallow depths of less than 5 km (~3 mi) below ground level, but a couple were as deep as 12 km (~7.5 mi).

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

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. Call 808-967-8862 for weekly KILAUEA updates. 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.

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