Latest Kilauea eruption confined to Halema‘uma‘u crater

  • People watch as glow from lava flow is reflected in a plume coming from Kilauea at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Volcano on Monday. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

  • This USGS aerial photo taken shortly before noon Tuesday shows the two active fissures in Kilauea volcano's ongoing summit eruption in Halema‘uma‘u crater.

  • The recent eruption at Kilauea Volcano’s summit, within Halema‘uma‘u crater, has generated a lava lake that is being fed by two fissures. Halema‘uma‘u crater has previously been occupied by a water lake (July 2019 to December 2020) and a lava lake (2008 to 2018). The current lava lake is larger than both previous lakes; though it occupies a similar (but larger) location of the former water lake, its location is slightly more north than the former lava lake. USGS map by M. Zoeller.

Kilauea’s latest eruption might stoke fears of a repeat of 2018’s devastating lava flows, but for now, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory says the lava is isolated at the summit.

While visitors flocked to see the return of lava to Halema‘uma‘u crater, a statement Monday afternoon from HVO stressed that the eruption is wholly confined to the crater.

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HVO research geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua reiterated that statement Tuesday, saying there is presently no danger of lava re-emerging at the lower East Rift Zone, where lava erupted in 2018, eventually destroying more than 700 homes and other structures.

“If lava returns to the rift zone, it will stay within the rift zone, but it doesn’t have to go to the lower East Rift Zone,” Kauahikaua said. “It could go back to Pu‘u ‘O‘o or somewhere else.”

While liquid lava was visible at Halema‘uma‘u before 2018, that lava lake was fed from below, Kauahikaua said, which led to fluctuations in the height of the lava level.

The current eruption is fed from two fissures on the crater walls, which Kauahikaua said is actually more common than fissures located at the deepest point of a crater, that are spewing lava into the crater floor, where it will presumably remain until it cools, although that could take years.

Earlier Tuesday, the new lava lake was at least 440 feet deep and contained 2.6 billion gallons of lava.

Kauahikaua said predicting the length of an eruption is difficult, although instruments indicated the rate of ground tilting and lava flow appeared to be decreasing Tuesday, which could indicate the eruption is already losing its vigor.

But Kauahikaua added that the eruption could peter out after a few days or weeks, or it could continue in spurts for years as the eruption at Kilauea Iki did.

While the eruption poses no lava-related danger at the present time, it still presents hazards.

A Tuesday statement from the state Department of Health warned residents that levels of vog and volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide will increase downwind of the crater, particularly in areas such as Pahala and Ocean View.

People exposed to such conditions are advised to limit outdoor activities, particularly those that cause heavy breathing, avoid circulating outside air and regularly drink fluids.

The DOH also advised that face coverings and masks used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 do not provide any protection from vog or other gases.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Tuesday, in response to the eruption, also closed its backcountry to overnight use.

Park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said in a statement that, because more staff is needed to manage the high number of visitors wanting to see the lava, the park would not be able to quickly respond to overnight emergencies in the backcountry.

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Park rangers are busy managing large volumes of traffic and parking overflow day and night. Several thousand people gathered Monday night at Kilauea Overlook to watch the lava deep within the crater illuminate plumes of gas and steam.

Many visitors disregarded closure signs and post-and-cable barriers to get a closer look from the crater’s edge, putting themselves at great risk, according to HVNP.

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