As Hawaii’s Kilauea Erupts, Volcanologists Swarm: “I Expect Great Science From This Event”

As Hawaii’s Kilauea Erupts, Volcanologists Swarm: “I Expect Great Science From This Event”

The volcano that began a new round of eruptions on May 3 is proving to be a bonanza for volcanologists, as it cracks apart at its base and blows periodically at its top to jettison lava and plumes of ash across much of an anxious Big Island.
Scientists are studying these oozing fissures, explosive eruptions and magma flow patterns as they happen, a rare opportunity for many of them who, without the real thing, are often left to model volcano behavior in distant laboratories.
What they are learning is not simply a boon for pure science, though it certainly is that. Where the volcano cracks into fissures, how the magma tracks through the ground and what warning signs may exist that point to future eruptions will be used to better plan and protect Hawaiian communities in the future.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to see in real time how this volcano is going to change,” said Wendy Stovall, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who arrived on the Big Island last week. “For some, this is going to mean a lifetime’s work. And we owe it to the people who live here to make sure it is done.”
Since Kilauea began breaking apart at its base here in the Big Island’s southeastern corner, walls of lava and dangerous gases have displaced thousands of Hawaiians and destroyed more than 45 homes and out buildings. A geothermal power plant here, which provides about a quarter of the Big Island’s electricity supply, has been threatened by the lava flows. Company officials said this week that the plant, shuttered since the eruption began, has been made safe from any potential contact with lava.The steam and gas venting from 22 fissures has cast a pinkish fog over much of the south, a phenomenon known as “vog.” Earlier this week, lava flows began to hit the Pacific Ocean, producing “laze,” sending a mix of potentially toxic gas and tiny shards of glass into the atmosphere.
Stovall said a significant change during the past week is that the lava has been “losing its viscosity,” meaning it is becoming hotter, slicker and faster-moving along the ground. As a result, it poses a larger threat to people and homes.
In addition, scientists have noted chemical similarities between the lava emerging from the fissures here in what is known as the “lower east rift area” and the magma at Kilauea’s peak. That tells scientists magma is making its way down through the 4,000-foot volcano – “like a straw is pulling it,” Stovall said.
The result: less magma at the top to buoy up lava reservoirs. When those drop to a level that brings lava into contact with the water table, steam-driven explosions erupt at Kilauea’s summit, as has been happening with frequency in recent days.
“What that means is we will continue to see activity,” Stovall said. “But I can’t say for how long.”Kilauea has been erupting almost continuously for the past 25 years, but not nearly to the extent of this spring’s activity. Scientists go back nearly a century to locate an eruption of Kilauea equal in severity to the current one.
The volcano’s liveliness has made it one of the most-studied in the world. Even before the ground opened up here, Kilauea was like a patient in an intensive care unit, laden with monitoring equipment.