Volcano Watch: Remembering Mauna Loa’s eruption from July 5-6, 1975

  • USGS photo by D.W. Peterson A July 6, 1975, aerial view of a portion of the north flank of Mauna Loa, looking north. In red is the ʻaʻa lava flow that nearly made it to the Mauna Loa NOAA Weather Observatory road. After this photo was taken, the flow advanced to the four-wheel drive summit access road before stopping.

Mauna Loa erupted 46 years ago this week, from July 5-6, 1975, in a 20-hour event with vents confined to the summit region (the area above 3,660 m/12,000 ft) and lava flows descending to just below 3,170 m (10,400 ft). This was the first eruption in 25 years. At the time, it was the longest quiet stretch since 1843 (we are currently in the longest stretch at 37 years and counting).

What is interesting about the 1975 eruption? It was the first Mauna Loa eruption monitored by modern instruments, so it provides clues as to what we might observe in the lead up to a future Mauna Loa eruption. In addition, while all of Mauna Loa’s 33 eruptions since 1843 started at the summit, about half only had vents in the summit region — like in 1975. Thus, the 1975 eruption is a useful and well-documented example of Mauna Loa summit eruptions: a common style of activity for this volcano.

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Mauna Loa showed clear signs of unrest beginning in April 1974 and had large seismic swarms in August and December 1974, with maximum daily earthquake counts of up to about 450 (August) and 1,500 (December). Daily earthquake counts exceeded 100 most days from February through June 1975. Nothing unusual was noticed during the day of July 5, 1975. However, that night at 10:51 p.m. HST, seismic activity rapidly escalated, and by 11:30 p.m., the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory notified authorities at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Hawaii County Civil Defense that an eruption appeared imminent. The eruption began July 5, 1975, at 11:42 p.m. with a line of fissures opening up across Moku‘aweoweo Caldera. It was over by 7:30 p.m. on July 6.

HVO staff arrived at Mauna Loa’s summit area 2 hours after the eruption started. They found lava fountains extending across Moku‘aweoweo Caldera through to about 1 km (0.6 miles) southwest outside the caldera, with flows advancing west and southeast. By 2:25 a.m. on July 6, additional fissures opened up across North Pit crater and northeast outside the caldera. By dawn, fountains and lava flows had stalled within Moku‘aweoweo and at the southwestern fissures. The active fissures were now only northeast of Moku‘aweoweo, with ‘a‘a flows traveling north about 2 km per hour (1.2 mph) towards the Mauna Loa NOAA Weather Observatory road. Around 7:15 a.m., the fountains feeding the ‘a‘a flows stopped erupting. This was good news for the road — the lava got to within 165 m (180 yards) of it but did not cut it off. Weak fountaining continued elsewhere northeast of Moku‘aweoweo until nightfall, when the eruption ended.

Over the next few days it was unclear whether activity would pick up again, as inflation continued, dozens of earthquakes were felt, and hundreds more detected in Mauna Loa’s Northeast Rift Zone near Pu‘u‘ula‘ula. However, by July 10 seismic activity had waned, and between July 9–12 deflation was measured near Pu‘u‘ula‘ula. By July 12, HVO volcanologists were confident that the eruption was pau — for now.

The next — and most recent — eruption in 1984 covered over 90% of the 1975 lava flows. However, flows are still exposed just south (mauka) of the Mauna Loa NOAA Weather Observatory road about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) before the observatory.

How representative is the 1975 eruption of summit-only activity? Of the 14 summit-only eruptions for which we know the start and end date, three eruptions — including 1975 — lasted a day or less, one lasted a week or less, four lasted between 1 and 4 weeks, five lasted between one and six months, and one lasted several years.

While we don’t know when, or how long, the next Mauna Loa eruption will be, it will start at the summit if it follows the pattern set by eruptions documented since 1843. Next, the eruption will either stay at the summit—like in 1975 — or migrate down Mauna Loa’s flank.

Before the eruption, we expect weeks to months of unrest with a rapid escalation of seismic activity immediately prior to the eruption. As our monitoring network is more extensive and sophisticated than in 1975, we expect higher overall earthquake counts.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea 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.

No surface activity at Kilauea Volcano has been observed by field crews or webcam images since May 23. Seismicity has slowly increased in recent weeks in the summit region, with continued gradual summit inflation over the past several months and two deflation-inflation cycles over the past week. Sulfur dioxide emission rates remain slightly elevated. It is possible that the Halema‘uma‘u vent could resume eruption or that Kilauea is entering a longer period of quiescence prior to the next eruption. For more information on current monitoring of Kilauea, 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 147 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded below Mauna Loa. 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, see: https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/monitoring.

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There were 6 events with 3 or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a M4.2 earthquake 73 km (45 mi) WNW of Kalaoa at 0 km (0 mi) depth on July 7 at 7:40 a.m. HST, a M2.1 earthquake 18 km (11 mi) SE of Waimea at 22 km (13 mi) depth on July 5 at 5:50 p.m. HST, a M2.6 earthquake 8 km (4 mi) SSE of Volcano at 1 km (1 mi) depth on July 5 at 2:39 p.m. HST, a M5.2 earthquake 12 km (7 mi) NNW of Kukuihaele at 26 km (16 mi) depth on July 5 at 1:43 p.m. HST, a M2.4 earthquake 23 km (14 mi) N of Pahala at 6 km (3 mi) depth on July 5 at 9:21 a.m. HST, and a M3.3 earthquake 4 km (2 mi) S of Pahala at 33 km (21 mi) depth on July 3 at 1:10 p.m. HST.

Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.