Kilauea summit eruption turns six years old

Kilauea summit lava lake (Photo: U.S. Geological Survey)
The lava lake in Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea’s summit contains active spatter on its margin. (Video: U.S. Geological Survey)

On Wednesday, March 19, 2014, Kilauea’s current summit eruption at Halemaumau Crater turned six years old. It’s the volcano’s longest summit eruption since 1924.

“The vent erupted explosively, blasting rocky debris onto the rim of Halemaumau Crater, destroying the Halemaumau Overlook fence, and covering the adjacent parking lot and a section of Crater Rim Dr. in a layer of mostly gravel-sized rock fragments,” said Janet Babb, geologist, U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. “The largest rock fragment was the size of a small apartment-sized washing machine. It landed on the cable fence along the trail to the overlook.”

The eruption began after several months of increasing seismic tremor and gas emissions. According to scientists, the eruption formed a new crater, called “Overlook” crater, that has grown dramatically over the years as crater walls collapsed.

“When the vent first opened in March 2008, it was about 115 feet wide,” Babb said. “But we did not actually see lava within the vent until about six months later.

Babb says as the vent grew larger, the molten lava lake inside grew more visible from the surface. “The lava lake level rises and falls with changes in magma pressure,” she said. “Its highest level to date occurred in October 2012, when the lava lake surface was just 72 feet below the vent rim. Today, the lava lake is about 165 feet below the vent rim.”

A two-mile stretch of Crater Rim Dr. remains closed to this day due to high levels of sulfur dioxide gas and other hazards, though the eruption itself has become a major attraction.

“What’s wonderful about this particular summit eruption is that it is accessible to nearly everyone and it’s right here in the main part of the park,” said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “The closest you can get is from the Jaggar Museum Overlook. People can park their car, walk a few steps along the paved walkway, and voila — one of the largest lava lakes in the world erupting right before their eyes.”

Park officials say visitation numbers have risen steadily ever since. In 2013, 1,583,209 visitors came to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a 6.7 percent jump from 2012. In 2012, visitor numbers were up 9.7 percent from the year before.

“Historically, our visitation does increase when there is a surge in volcanic activity,” Ferracane said. “While we don’t ask visitors why they come to the park, it’s a pretty good guess they’re coming to see the action from Kilauea at Halemaumau.”

Scientists can’t say for sure how long this current eruption will last. According to a Volcano Watch article written by USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists, “there was lava lake activity at the summit from at least 1823 to 1924 — over a hundred years — with most of it focused around Halemaumau. This history shows that Halemaumau has the potential for eruptive activity lasting decades.”

For now, Ferracane says one of the best times to observe the glow from Halemaumau is before sunrise from Jaggar Museum Overlook. “You can sometimes hear the rocks and boulders from the walls of the crater exploding as the lava engulfs them with its rise and fall,” she said. “It’s an eerie and fascinating sound, like huge surf pounding the shoreline, except the ‘surf’ is 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit! And, of course, the glow is magnificent, especially when the stars are out.”

Visitors can learn more from “Life on the Edge” talks at Jaggar Museum, 20-minute talks by park rangers about the current eruption at Halemaumau. The free talks are offered at 2 p.m., 3:30 and 5 p.m. daily, though park entrance fees apply.

  • Click here to learn more about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • Click here to learn more about the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

This view of Halemaumau was taken from an overlook near Volcano House, about two miles away from the crater. (Photo: Steve Geiger/NPS)

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