Cascading events led to 2018 Kilauea volcanic eruption, providing forecast clues

  • Helicopter overflight of Kilauea Volcano's lower East Rift zone on May 19, 2018, as a‘a lava flows emerge from fissures to form channels. (USGS photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • People watch from Volcano Golf & Country Club on May 15, 2018. as a plume of ash rises above Kilauea’s summit. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • This photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows lava fountaining at a fissure near Pahoa on June 5, 2018. Homes can be seen in the background. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Kilauea Volcano’s 2018 eruption was triggered by a relatively small and rapid change at the volcano after a decade-long build-up of pressure in the upper parts of the volcano, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications by earth scientists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and U.S. Geological Survey.

Using USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory data from before and during the 2018 eruption at the summit and flank, the research team reconstructed the geologic events. The 2018 eruption was one of the largest volcanic events in Hawaii in 200 years.


“The data suggest that a backup in the magma plumbing system at the long-lived Pu‘u ‘O‘o eruption site caused widespread pressurization in the volcano, driving magma into the lower flank,” said Matthew Patrick, research geologist at the USGS HVO and lead author of the study.

The eruption evolved, and its impact expanded, as a sequence of cascading events allowed relatively minor changes at Pu‘u ‘O‘o to cause major destruction and historic changes across the volcano.

A cascading series of events of this type was not considered the most likely outcome in the weeks prior to the onset of the eruption.

“This form of tunnel vision, which gives less attention to the least likely outcomes, is a bias that can be overcome by considering the broader, longer history of the volcano,” said Bruce Houghton, the Hawaii State Volcanologist, earth sciences professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and study co-author. “For Kilauea, this consists of widening the scope to consider the types of behavior seen in the first half of the 20th century and perhaps earlier.”

“Our study demonstrates that eruption forecasting can be inherently challenging in scenarios where volcanoes prime slowly and trigger due to a small event, as the processes that build to eruption may be hard to detect and are easy to overlook on the scale of the entire volcano,” said Patrick.

“It is also a cautionary tale against over-reliance on recent activity as a guide for future eruptions.”

The state absorbed a significant amount of the economic and social cost of the 2018 eruption and likely will do so again as Kilauea and Mauna Loa continue to erupt, suggested Houghton.


Studies like this, which probe the more subtle influences of the behavior of these volcanoes, are targeted at reducing the costs, human and physical, of the next eruptions.

With future work the research team aims to adopt diverse approaches to understanding the subsurface structure and movement of magma on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone.

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