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Volcano Watch: What defines an eruption pause?

  • The west vent in Halemaʻumaʻu erupting and building a spatter cone complex, with lava cascades feeding a growing lava lake at Kilauea summit. (USGS photograph from Jan. 11, 2021, by B. Carr.)

Kilauea’s recent volcano alert-level change, from Watch to Advisory, has attracted some attention.

The June 1 USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Kilauea weekly update summary reads: “Kilauea Volcano is no longer erupting. No surface activity has been observed … It is possible that the Halema‘uma‘u vent could resume eruption or that Kilauea is entering a period of quiescence prior to the next eruption.”

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We pick up the conversation where last week’s Volcano Watch article left off, with a more detailed explanation of why a three-month-long window is useful in defining an eruption “pause.” We’ll look at this from both a global (statistical) perspective and a Kilauea (historical) perspective.

The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Project maintains a database of all known volcanic eruptions. This database provides the broad range of eruption statistics, including global averages of eruption frequency and pauses. For known eruptions that have been well-observed, a “pause” in activity within an eruption can typically last up to 90 days.

When a gap in activity lasts for longer than 90 days, it typically (but not always) becomes a much longer period of volcanic rest and can stretch from years to millennia (such as a frequently active volcano versus a sleepy stratovolcano). Any new eruptive activity thus becomes “the next eruption.” A new eruption could begin in the same region — for example, “the summit region” — or in a different region like on a rift zone, and should be preceded by its own precursory unrest that is typical of that volcano.

If an eruption is to resume activity, it will often do so within the 90-day window and, typically (but not always), lava resumes erupting from the same vent. Reviewing Kilauea’s recorded history since 1823, the Smithsonian’s 90-day window of inactivity mostly holds true with one exception. A pause lasting 3.5 months occurred during the Maunaulu eruption of 1969–74.

The next longest pauses on Kilauea were recorded during the first three years (1983-1986) of the Pu‘u‘O‘o eruption on Kilauea’s middle East Rift Zone, where 48, short-lived high-fountain eruptions were separated by variable pauses that lasted days to months. The longest pauses were between the high-fountaining episodes 3–4 (65 days), episodes 32–33 (52 days), episodes 12–13 (50 days), episodes 39–40 (49 days), episodes 25–26 (43 days), and episodes 31–32 (38 days). The Kilauea Iki eruption in 1959 also had pauses lasting hours to several days between lava fountain episodes.

The pauses between episodic fountaining during these eruptions are also called “repose periods.” HVO scientists were able to tell that the eruption had only paused because each fountaining episode was followed by predictable patterns of rapid inflation and escalating earthquake activity.

All other well-documented mid-eruption pauses during Kilauea eruptions resumed in a month or less. Recently, there were two pauses in Kilauea’s 2018 lower East Rift Zone eruption. From May 9–12, 2018, a 63-hour-long pause ended with an eruption from a new vent, fissure 16. However, at Ahu‘aila‘au (fissure 8), there was a 15-day pause in lava effusion at the end of August 2018 before lava reappeared in Ahu‘aila‘au during Sept. 1–4. After a 90-day-window, HVO determined that the eruption was over. Kilauea entered a 2.25-year-long period of rest that ended with the summit fissure eruption in Halema‘uma‘u crater that began Dec. 20, 2020.

Kilauea’s recent summit eruption within Halema‘uma‘u was determined to be paused on May 27, after a period with no visible lava, no rise of the lake surface, and decrease in sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. If the pause continues to August 24, it will likely mean this eruption is over.

In the past, numerous eruptions have taken place within Halema‘uma‘u crater — the home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano-deity. Continued diligent monitoring of Kilauea by HVO will inform us over the next several months if the eruption will continue or if we must wait longer for the next eruption to begin. Quiescence between eruptions can last months to decades on Kilauea and HVO monitors Kilauea volcano closely for any signs of renewed activity.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea Volcano is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is at ADVISORY (https://www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/volcano-hazards/about-alert-levels). Kilauea updates are issued weekly.

Lava supply to the Halema‘uma‘u lava lake has ceased and sulfur dioxide emissions have decreased to near pre-eruption background levels. Summit tiltmeters recorded slight, oscillating deflation-inflation cycles over the past week. Seismicity remains stable overall, with slightly increased earthquake counts and tremor over the past week. There are currently no indications suggesting that a resumption of volcanic activity is imminent. Kilauea remains an active volcano and future eruptions are possible at the summit or elsewhere on the volcano. For more information on current monitoring of Kilauea Volcano, see https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/Kilauea/monitoring.

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 an eruption from the current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.

This past week, about 55 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded below Mauna Loa; most of these occurred below the summit and upper-elevations at depths of less than 8 kilometers (about 5 miles). Global Positioning System measurements show low rates of deformation in the summit region over the past week. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at both the summit and at Sulphur Cone on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, see: https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/monitoring.

There were 4 events with 3 or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a M4.0 earthquake 42 km (26 mi) ESE of Naalehu at 10 km (6 mi) depth on June 2 at 6:44 p.m. HST, a M2.8 earthquake 5 km (3 mi) SSW of Volcano at 1 km (0 mi) depth on June 2 at 4:14 p.m. HST, a M3.4 earthquake 10 km (6 mi) NE of Pahala at 32 km (20 mi) depth on May 31 at 5:59 a.m. HST, and a M3.2 earthquake 18 km (11 mi) WNW of Kalaoa at 42 km (26 mi) depth on May 29 at 11:13 p.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, 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.

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