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Kilauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone eruption: Here’s what happened in 2016

December 30, 2016 - 5:01pm

Jan. 3, 2017, marks the 34th anniversary of the start of Kilauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone (Puu Oo) eruption. Given the duration of this eruption, people who were children when it began are now old enough to be parents, or possibly, grandparents. And, many Hawaii Island residents have never known a time when Puu Oo was not erupting.

During the past 34 years, Kilauea’s East Rift Zone has seen a dizzying array of changes. High lava fountains gave way to tube-fed pahoehoe flows. Vents opened, fed flows to the ocean, and were abandoned. Neighborhoods were buried by lava, rebuilt, and partly buried again.

This past year was no exception. A new vent opened and formed a new lava flow that is still active today.

As the East Rift Zone eruption begins its 35th year, let’s review what happened over the past 12 months.

When 2016 began, lava was erupting from the June 27th vent on the north flank of the Puu Oo cone. This was the same vent that fed flows toward Pahoa in 2014 and early 2015.

During late 2015 and early 2016, however, the vent fed surface breakouts over a broad area up to about 5 miles northeast of Puu Oo. These flows were upslope from communities in the island’s lower Puna District, but were relatively weak and posed no threat to infrastructure.

As 2016 progressed, lava also began to erupt within the small crater atop Puu Oo, suggesting that more magma was arriving at Puu Oo than was being erupted. This culminated in two new breakouts on the north and east flanks of the Puu Oo cone on May 24. The June 27th flow northeast of Puu Oo gradually stagnated and ceased over the following week.

The northern May 24 breakout at Puu Oo, called episode 61f, was dead by June 4. But the eastern breakout, called episode 61g, captured the entire output from Puu Oo and kept going. Lava advanced downslope to the southeast, initially at rates of up to several hundred yards per day, and reached the top of the Pulama pali on Kilauea’s south flank in late June.

Spectacular channelized ʻaʻa flows were visible for the next several days as lava streamed down the pali and puddled at its base. By early July, the 61g flow was back on the move and headed toward the ocean.

Lava crept across the coastal plain over the following weeks and crossed the gravel emergency access road (constructed in 2014 when flows were threatening Pahoa) on July 25. The 61g lava flow reached the ocean early the next day and began to build two lava deltas, known as the eastern and western Kamokuna ocean entries.

The western, and weaker, of the two lava deltas grew to about 6 acres before it was abandoned in late September. The eastern Kamokuna lava delta persisted, however, and by the end of 2016 was about 26 acres.

Kilauea’s East Rift Zone eruption settled in to a relatively consistent pattern of behavior this past year. Lava erupted from the Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent was carried downslope through a lava tube, where it emptied into the ocean. Occasionally, short-lived breakouts of lava occurred along the tube, creating surface flows.

In a few instances, more substantial breakouts occurred from the vent itself, burying the upper end of the 61g flow field beneath new lava. The largest of these breakouts, to date, occurred on November 21, and sent lava to the east of Pu‘u ‘O‘o. This breakout was still active as of late December, advancing slowly—a few tens of yards per day—to the southeast along the edge of the older 61g flow. The 61g flows currently pose no threat to Puna communities.

As the New Year begins, we see no indication that Kilauea’s East Rift Zone eruption is about to change significantly or stop. This leads us to wonder, will it outlast another generation?

If you’d like to hear more about Hawaiian volcanoes, you’re invited to attend the Volcano Awareness Month talks offered by USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists throughout the month of January. The schedule is posted at

For now, we wish you a great 2017!

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea continues to erupt at its summit and East Rift Zone. This past week, the summit lava lake level varied between about 52-89 feet below the vent rim. The 61g lava flow was still active and entering the ocean near Kamokuna. A younger branch of the flow is advancing slowly to the east of Pu‘u ‘O‘o. The 61g lava flows do not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, only a few small-magnitude earthquakes occurred beneath the volcano, primarily in the upper Southwest Rift Zone and summit caldera at depths less than 3 miles. GPS measurements continue to show deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit and upper Southwest Rift Zone.

One earthquake was reported felt on Hawaii Island during the past week. At 11:53 a.m. on Dec. 27, a magnitude-3.3 earthquake occurred approximately 5 miles southwest of Hilo at a depth of 6.2 miles.

Visit for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea daily eruption updates, Mauna Loa weekly updates, volcano photos, recent earthquakes info, and more; call for summary updates at 967-8862 (Kilauea) or 967-8866 (Mauna Loa); email questions to

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists.

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