Volcano Watch: Kilauea’s 1952 summit eruption ended a long period of inactivity

  • Two small spatter cones, within a larger cone, are outgassing on the floor of Halema‘uma‘u Crater. A lava pond, approximately 30 m (100 ft) in diameter, is visible between the small cones. This photograph is looking westward, taken from the southeastern rim of the crater by G. Macdonald on August 27, 1952.

On June 27, 1952, an eruption started at the summit of Kilauea Volcano, ending a period of quiescence that had lasted nearly 18 years.

During the nearly two decades of quiet on Kilauea following a summit eruption in 1934, there were several periods of increased earthquake activity and deformation beneath the summit. However, none of these phases of unrest resulted in an eruption.

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Early in April 1952, a series of earthquakes began along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone and beneath the summit. The earthquakes, accompanied by summit inflation, persisted through May and June.

At approximately 11:40 p.m. on June 27, an eruption commenced at the summit. A loud roaring and bright glow emanating from Halema‘uma‘u Crater alerted residents and staff in proximity to Kilauea Caldera of the new eruption.

Within minutes of the eruption onset, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff were on their way to the office located on Uekahuna bluff. From HVO, a fountain erupting on the southwestern edge of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater floor was visibly over-topping the crater rim, nearly 245 m (800 ft) higher. The fountain quickly waned and by 11:55 p.m. was no longer visible from the bluff.

HVO staff reached the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook 30 minutes after the eruption began. A 790 m (0.5 mile) long fissure crossed the entire floor of Halema’uma’u crater, and pooled lava had completely covered the crater floor.

A detailed account of the eruptions early hours can be found in this “Volcano Watch” article.

The lake of lava had plates of cooled crust on its surface separated by cracks that provided views of the incandescent molten lava below — much like the smaller 2008–2018 lava lake within the Halema‘uma‘u “Overlook crater.” The fountaining lava created waves over the surface of the lake that emanated outward from the fissure to the crater walls.

Observers also noted seeing occasional whirlwinds on the lake surface that threw pieces of crust, up to a meter (yard) across, several meters into the air. This same phenomenon was observed in 2018 over the fissure 8 lava channel.

After the initial hours of the eruption, the lava fountains began to subside. After a little more than four hours, only the northeastern quarter of the fissure was active, and observers thought that the eruption could be ending. Shortly after, however, the southwestern end of the fissure reactivated with low bubbling fountains, and by that time Halema‘uma‘u Crater was estimated to have been filled with a lake of lava approximately 15 m (50 ft) deep.

During the first two weeks of the eruption, small lava fountains continued to pop up along the surface of the lava lake.

By July 11 the active length of the fissure had shortened to approximately 120 m (400 ft). Two main fountains persisted and began to build a large cinder and spatter cone within the lava lake. Gaps within the cone wall allowed lava to spill out and feed the surrounding lava lake, which had shrunk from a peak of 40 hectares (100 acres) on June 28 to about 14 hectares (34 acres) by early August. The lava lake within Halema‘uma‘u Crater in early 2018 paled in comparison, at approximately 4.2 hectares (10.4 acres).

By the end of August, most of the erupted lava was contained within the large cone, where two active vents were building smaller spatter cones. Between the two spatter cones, there was a small lava pond that had an average diameter of about 30 m (100 ft).

This continued — with occasional lava flows on the floor of Halema‘uma‘u Crater — for the next few months, until the eruption ended after 136 days on Nov. 10.

Approximately 0.05 km3 (64,000,000 cubic yards) of erupted lava was confined within Halema‘uma‘u Crater. The eruption filled the crater with 95 m (310 ft) of new lava — raising the floor from 235 m (770 ft) to 140 m (460 ft) below the rim. For comparison, the Halema‘uma‘u Crater floor prior to the 2018 summit collapse was approximately 80 m (260 ft) below the rim.

After nearly two decades of quiet on Kilauea Volcano, the 1952 eruption ended the longest eruptive pause on Kilauea in (at least) the past 200 years.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level remains at NORMAL (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_alerts.html). Kilauea updates are issued monthly.

Kilauea monitoring data for the past month show variable but typical rates of seismicity and ground deformation, low rates of sulfur dioxide emissions, and only minor geologic changes since the end of eruptive activity in September 2018. The water lake at the bottom of Halema‘uma‘u continues to slowly expand and deepen. For the most current information on the lake, see https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/Kilauea/summit_water_resources.html

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to eruption from current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.

This past week, about 107 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded beneath the upper-elevations of Mauna Loa; most of these occurred at shallow depths of less than 8 kilometers (~5 miles). Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements show long-term slowly increasing summit inflation, consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures as measured at both Sulphur Cone and the summit remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, see: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna_loa/monitoring_summary.html.

There were 3 events with 3 or more felt reports in the Hawaiian islands during the past week: a magnitude-3.4 earthquake 6 km (4 mi) NE of Pāhala at 33 km (21 mi) depth on June 10, 2020 at 05:57 p.m. HST, a magnitude-3.2 earthquake 5 km (3 mi) NNW of Pāhala at 35 km (22 mi) depth on June 10, 2020 at 05:05 p.m. HST, and a magnitude-2.8 earthquake 6 km (4 mi) E of Pāhala at 33 km (21 mi) depth on June 09, 2020 at 10:59 a.m. HST.

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

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Please visit HVO’s website for past Volcano Watch articles,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 is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.