Seven months of no lava at Puu Oo heralds end of an era

  • Puu Oo on May 3, 2018, as viewed from the helicopter overflight. The crater floor is collapsed, and a thin plume escapes from the gaping crater. (U.S. Geological Survey/Courtesy Photo)

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — One of the most frequent questions asked of USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) scientists the last several months has been, “Is the Lower East Rift eruption over?” But the same question could – and should – be asked of the Puu Oo eruption.

On Jan. 3, 2018, we marked the 35th anniversary of Puu Oo. For the past three and a half decades, lava has erupted almost continuously from the middle East Rift Zone (ERZ). Minor pauses in surface activity mostly occurred between the fountaining episodes in 1983 to 1986, and subsequently during a few episodes marked by subsidiary fissures, intrusions, or partial crater floor collapses.

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Given the longevity of the Puu Oo eruption, we’d grown accustomed to the luxury of having nearly-uninterrupted access to lava. The lure of reliable lava viewing beckoned to millions of tourists around the globe.

But, I say “nearly-uninterrupted” because there have been over 100 brief pauses in surface activity throughout the 35-year-long event, most lasting hours to a couple days. The six longest pauses during the Puu Oo activity were each one to two-months-long, and all occurred between fountaining episodes in the first two years.

Specifically, long pauses between fountains occurred spanning episodes three and four (65 days), episodes 32 and 33 (52 days), episodes 12 and 13 (50 days), episodes 39 and 40 (49 days), episodes 25 and 26 (43 days), and episodes 31 and 32 (38 days).

After the fountaining episodes, there were several Puu Oo eruption pauses lasting between one week and one month.

Specifically, there was a 10-day pause in February of 1992 after the Kupaianaha vent shut down, ending episodes 48. A year later there was an eight day pause in February of 1993 after an uprift intrusion cause Puu Oo’s crater floor to collapse. A nine-day pause in February of 1996 occurred after an observed surge in effusion rate.

The longest eruption hiatus after the fountaining phase lasted 24 days following the episode 54 fissure in Napau Crater in February of 1997. In September 1999, there was an 11-day pause during episode 55 after a partial collapse of the Puu Oo crater floor.

Most recently, there were two pauses in 2011: an 18-day-long pause after the March Kamoamoa fissure, and a six-day long pause after the episode 60 west flank break out in August.

However, on April 30, 2018 – everything changed. The catastrophic collapse of Puu Oo has left the iconic eruption site and surrounding lava flow fields devoid of lava through the rest of 2018. Dec. 30 marked the seven month anniversary of no surface activity at Puu Oo and is effectively a concluding milestone for this long-lived event.

As a refresher from our previous article, the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program (GVP) classifies the end of continuous volcanic activity based on an absence of eruptive activity over a 90-day period.

Statistically, after a 210-day gap in activity, it is extremely unlikely that lava will resume activity within Puu Oo. Based on historical knowledge of rift zone eruptions, pauses lasting more than 3½ months have ended their respective eruption.

Given the GVP criterion, no signs of imminent unrest, and that Dec. 30, 2018 marks seven months of no lava, then the Puu Oo eruption could be considered over. The 36th anniversary of continuous eruption, on Jan. 3, 2019, will not come to pass.

This does not mean Kilauea Volcano is dead. New eruptions have previously begun elsewhere on Kilauea after months to decades of quiet. Magma is being supplied to the volcano, and deformation data shows evidence for movement of molten rock through the magmatic system, refilling the middle ERZ. It’s important to note that Kilauea is still an active volcano that will erupt in the future, and associated hazards have not changed. When a new eruption does occur, ground cracking, gas emissions, seismicity, and deformation can increase rapidly.

The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory continues to closely monitor Kilauea Volcano through ground-based observations, helicopter overflights, and geophysical instrument networks. Significant changes will be noted in HVO’s weekly updates.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kilauea is not erupting. Rates of seismicity, deformation, and gas release have not changed significantly over the past week.

There was one event with three or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week. On Jan. 27 at 8:24 a.m. HST, a magnitude-3.5 earthquake occurred in the upper Southwest Rift Zone of Mauna Loa at a depth of 0.3 miles above sea level.

Deformation signals are consistent with refilling of the middle ERZ. Sulfur dioxide emission rates have been below detection limits in the lower ERZ since early September, though minor amounts of volcanic gas are still present.

Hazardous conditions still exist at both the lower ERZ and summit. Residents in the lower Puna District and Kilauea summit areas on the Island of Hawaii should stay informed and heed Hawaii County Civil Defense closures, warnings, and messages (http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/active-alerts).

The USGS Volcano Alert level for Mauna Loa remains at normal.

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Please visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Call 967-8862 for weekly Kilauea updates. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

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

  1. Sara Steiner-jackson February 3, 2019 10:41 am

    Pu’u O’o is still filling up and emitting vog, as nearby residents can attest to waking up in the morning gagging and their eyes are stuck shut.


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