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Kilauea Volcano’s “Old Faithful” — a thing of the past

Updated: 
August 28, 2016 - 12:05am

In 1870, while exploring the American West, Nathaniel P. Langford encountered an “immense volume of clear, sparkling water projected into the air to a height of one hundred and twenty-five feet.” He named this volcanic feature “Old Faithful.” This magnificent geyser became the signature attraction of Yellowstone National Park and remains a popular visitor stop today.

But another volcanic feature with the same name has been largely forgotten.

Hawii Island once had its own “Old Faithful,” composed of lava rather than boiling water, located in Halemaumau Crater at the summit of Kilauea. This lava fountain was first described in 1894 by Walter F. Frear, who wrote in the Volcano House register that the fountain had played once or twice a minute in the same location since 1892. The name was apt, because this persistent lava fountain continued to splash to heights of 30-50 feet at the same location for decades.

At times, the fountain was the central feature in a lava lake within Halemaumau Crater. At other times, lava in Halema‘uma‘u drained away, leaving nothing but rubble on the floor of the crater. But when the lava lake returned, so did Kilauea Volcano’s Old Faithful.

In 1911, Frank A. Perret, a volcanologist, and E.S. Shepherd, a gas chemist, began the first extended study of Kilauea for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They were determined to measure the temperature of an active lava lake, and picked Old Faithful as their target.

The scientists erected a cable system that was stretched across Halemaumau Crater so that instruments to measure temperature could be lowered into the lava fountain. After several failed attempts, they succeeded in obtaining the first lava temperature ever recorded, 1,010 degrees Celsius (1,850 degrees Fahrenheit). Their measurement is remarkably close to temperatures recorded with modern instruments.

Perret was fascinated by Old Faithful, and included detailed descriptions of the persistent fountain in his professional papers. The scientist also took many photographs of the lava fountain, such as the hand-tinted lantern slide that we recently found in the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory photo archives and included with this article.

When Thomas A. Jaggar replaced Perret as the permanent volcanologist at Kilauea in 1912, he continued the study of Old Faithful as part of a broader effort to understand surface motion in the lava lake at Halemaumau. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory record books show many dozens of sketches of circulation patterns in the lava lake with “OF” (Old Faithful) labeled as the centerpiece.

Most observers have concluded that, rather than being located over the source of a volcanic vent that feeds magma into the lava lake, features such as Old Faithful are the opposite — they are located where lava drains away. Jaggar suggested that the intermittent fountain lay over a “sink hole,” meaning a site of lava draining or downwelling.

Today, scientists studying the behavior of the Overlook crater lava lake, which has been present within Halema‘uma‘u Crater since 2008, have also found that sites of persistent spattering are commonly sites of lava downwelling, not upwelling.

On June 5, 1916, the lava column at Halemaumau dropped and thousands of tons of rocky debris fell from the upper walls of the crater, covering Old Faithful. When lava returned to the crater, a new vent that opened at the Old Faithful location was described by Jaggar as “a cone with open top glowing and splashing at intervals.” That cone later collapsed, and it soon became apparent that the basic geometry of the lava lake had changed in a significant way.

While scattered references to “Old Faithful” can be found after 1916, the persistent lava fountain, which played at Kilauea for a quarter of a century, was a thing of the past.

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

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea continues to erupt at its summit and East Rift Zone. During the past week, the summit lava lake level varied between about 66-131 feet below the vent rim within Halemaumau Crater. On the East Rift Zone, the “61g” lava flow continued to advance across the coastal plain and enter the ocean. The lava flow does not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Seismicity remains elevated relative to the long-term background rate, but has not changed significantly over the past week. Earthquakes are occurring mostly in the volcano’s south caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone at depths less than 3 miles. GPS measurements show deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit and upper Southwest Rift Zone, with inflation occurring mainly in the southwestern part of the magma storage complex.

Two earthquakes were reported felt in the past week. At 12:17 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 24, a magnitude-3.8 earthquake occurred 3.2 miles southeast of Kilauea Volcano’s summit at a depth of 1.8 miles. At 1:12 p.m. on the same day, a magnitude-3.5 aftershock occurred at a similar location and depth.

Visit the HVO website (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov) 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 askHVO@usgs.gov.

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