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Kilauea was jumping and rocks were flying 90 years ago

May 11, 2014 - 6:23am

Ninety years ago this month, Kilauea was exploding. For some 20 days starting May 11, 1924, more than 50 explosive bursts, each lasting a few minutes or less, spread ash across the eastern third of the island, from Hilo to Makuu to beyond Pahala. Blocks weighing up to 12 tons fell around Halemaumau. Truman Taylor, a young accountant from Pahala, was killed by a falling rock near today’s Halemaumau parking lot, and others, including the national park superintendent, suffered minor injuries. It was a month very different from any since.

The prelude to the eruption involved draining of a lava lake in Halemaumau, we think down to below the water table, about 2,020 feet below Jaggar Museum. That allowed water to pour into the emptied conduit that fed lava to the lake. The hot walls of the conduit heated the water to steam, which billowed up the conduit and out of Halemaumau. Every few hours, on average, part of the conduit wall collapsed, temporarily damming the steam, and observers often noted a clearing of the air above Halemaumau. For several minutes, steam pressure built up below the rock-fall dam, eventually bursting through it, propelling rocks and ash with it in an explosion. Once the dam was breached, steam pressure dropped and relative quiet ensued, only to be broken again by another rock fall.

Impressive though they were, the 1924 explosive events left little trace that remains today. Ash spread widely, disrupting life and even temporarily closing the Kapoho-Hilo railroad in Makuu, but it was thin and quickly removed by water and wind. On the rim of Kilauea Caldera, one has to search very hard to find even tiny remnants of the ash. Large blocks and scattered ash still dot the caldera floor near Halemaumau, but future lava flows will eventually cover them, erasing all evidence of the 1924 eruption.

In striking contrast, earlier explosive events, between 1500 and 1800, left thick deposits — as much as 35 feet — all around the caldera. That means the 1924 explosions were really very small — runts compared to their older siblings.

But size doesn’t necessarily matter. It is true that a large eruption has a wider “footprint” than a small eruption and the potential to affect society more. There is a very important distinction, however, between the size of an explosive eruption and its impact on people: no people, no impact. This reflects the difference between hazard — what the volcano can do, and risk — its impact on people. A very small eruption could present more risk than a large one, depending on where people are and the complexity of societal infrastructure.

In 1924, most people, except those few in the caldera, were affected in only small ways, because the population was low — relatively low risk. If a 1924-scale eruption were to occur today, the risk would be much higher, because of increased population. Such an eruption could occur with only a few days or week’s warning, if the lava lake in Halemaumau were to drain down to the water table.

Given today’s situation, an eruption larger than in 1924 would present a still more serious problem. However, geologic studies show that past large explosive events were clustered into periods lasting several centuries. Since we are not now in such a period, the near-future chance of a large explosive eruption is probably small. But the future will eventually become the present, the volcano will enter a new explosive period, and the risk posed by a large explosive eruption will be high.

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within Halemaumau produced nighttime glow visible via HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lake level was relatively high and stable, hovering between 98 feet and 115 feet below the overlook crater rim.

On Kilauea’s east rift zone, the Kahaualea 2 flow remains active, its front 5.3 miles northeast of its vent on Puu Oo when mapped May 5. In addition, a spatter cone on the south side of the crater floor sent small flows toward both the north and the southeast.

There were no earthquakes in the past week reported felt on Hawaii Island.

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

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