Volcano Watch: Mauna Loa 2022: a retrospective on the early hours of the eruption

Ilya Bilyk/Courtesy photo View from Kailua-Kona of Mauna Loa lava flows from the south caldera during the early morning hours of Nov. 28, 2022.

In the late hours of Nov. 27, 2022, Mauna Loa began erupting. Lava was visible on the west side of the Island of Hawaii, from Kailua-Kona to Waikoloa. Social media was ablaze with pictures and commentary of lava flows descending the west flank toward communities.

This volcanic activity caused anxiety among local residents, and tensions remained high after the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) issued a statement that the flows were not a threat to communities and people living on the west side of the island. How could that be? “We see the flows!” was the public’s response.


Past eruptive behavior is an excellent guide to future activity. From past eruptions, we know that lava flows from the Southwest Rift Zone of Mauna Loa can threaten communities in a matter of hours and quickly reach the ocean.

It is the same past behavior that gave HVO the confidence to say that those flows, seen from Kona, were not a threat to folks living on the west side of the island. Let us explain.

Mauna Loa has erupted 34 times since 1843. Each eruption started in Moku‘aweoweo, and likely the south caldera area; however, there are very few eyewitness observations of the onset of eruptions in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the great distances, high altitude, cold, and lack of water (to name a few).

Trying to sleuth the activity from geologic mapping is confounded by frequent eruptive activity, as old eruptions were covered by new eruptions, obliterating the past eruptive history.

Fortunately, there were some astute observers and intrepid adventurers that hiked to the summit for the 19th and early 20th century eruptions. And in the late 20th century, technology (airplanes and satellites) helped us to document some of the activity.

Based on those observations, we can say with confidence that the activity in the early hours of the 2022 Mauna Loa eruption was similar to some past eruptions. Similar reports from the west side of the island—of flows descending from the south caldera region toward South Kona, as observed in 2022 — also occurred in 1851, 1879, 1887, 1897, 1899, 1903, 1907, 1926, 1933, 1940, 1949, 1975, and 1984.

Flows that erupted in the south caldera region, but were not confirmed by visual observations from Kona, include the 1868, 1916, 1919, and 1950.

Flows that are visible high on Mauna Loa’s west flank erupt from the south caldera region of Mauna Loa, outside the topographic depressions of the summit region. Activity in this location is easily visible from south and west sides of the island, which can be alarming. However, none of these previous lava flows in the south caldera region, whether observed or not, traveled far enough to threaten South Kona. Thus, just because folks can see lava from the west side of the island, high on Mauna Loa’s west flank, does not indicate that lava will head south or that Kona will be inundated.

In 2022, monitoring parameters clearly indicated that only the summit region was active in the initial hours, without lava propagating down the Southwest Rift Zone. This is why HVO was confident in issuing a statement that the flows were not a threat to the west side of the island.

Since the south caldera region is often active at the start of eruptions, and lava flows are common, it is important to be aware that this type of activity is normal, and it does not necessarily constitute a threat to communities on the western flank of Mauna Loa. Ultimately, we must wait until Pele decides whether the eruption will move out of the summit and south caldera to determine if it poses a threat.

Eruptions are an inevitable part of Mauna Loa’s future, but the associated hazards can be anticipated by careful documenting of its past behavior as a guide to the future.

Additionally, we are increasing our webcam network to include views of the south caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone regions of Mauna Loa. In the future, we will have near real-time visual surveillance of this portion of the volcano, enhancing our existing monitoring network and aiding us in our primary mission: to issue timely and accurate warnings of hazardous volcanic activity.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is WATCH.

Elevated rates of earthquake activity and ground deformation in Kilauea summit region began in the early morning of January 31, prompting HVO to raise the alert level and aviation color code to WATCH/ORANGE. Earthquake locations extend from the area just south of the caldera 5-7 miles (8-11 km) southwest along the Koa‘e fault system and ground deformation patterns suggest inflation in that region.

These observations indicate that pulses of magma continue to move beneath the surface of southwest of the summit. Periods of increased earthquake activity and rates of ground deformation can be expected to continue in this region.

No unusual activity has been noted along the rift zones.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert Level is at NORMAL.

Webcams show no signs of activity on Mauna Loa. Summit seismicity has remained at low levels over the past month. Ground deformation indicates continuing slow inflation as magma replenishes the reservoir system following the 2022 eruption. SO2 emission rates are at background levels.

Three earthquakes were reported felt in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a M3.3 earthquake 7 km (4 mi) S of Volcano at 1 km (0 mi) depth on Jan. 31 at 3:43 p.m. HST, a M3.5 earthquake 7 km (4 mi) SW of Volcano at 0 km (0 mi) depth on Jan. 31 at 3:42 p.m. HST, and a M3.0 earthquake 1 km (0 mi) SW of Pahala at 35 km (22 mi) depth on Jan. 30 at 7:58 a.m. HST.

HVO continues to closely monitor Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Please visit HVO’s website for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake information, and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

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