Is Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano About to Erupt?

Kīlauea Volcano's summit lava lake continued to drop today (May 15, 2015). Measurements of the lake surface late this afternoon showed that it was 62 m (203 ft) below the top of the newly-created vent rim, a ridge (or levee) of solidified lava about 8 m (26 ft) thick that accumulated on top of the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater floor from multiple overflows of the vent during the past two weeks. (Image: USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)
Kīlauea Volcano's summit lava lake continued to drop today (May 15, 2015). Measurements of the lake surface late this afternoon showed that it was 62 m (203 ft) below the top of the newly-created vent rim, a ridge (or levee) of solidified lava about 8 m (26 ft) thick that accumulated on top of the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater floor from multiple overflows of the vent during the past two weeks. (Image: USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano has researchers and seismologists in Hawaii on edge. In the last few days, researchers identified small earthquakes at the highest rate to date, which has set a new record at one earthquake every couple of minutes. With these seismic changes, it has prompted the researchers with the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory to issue a special information statement:

The summit lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater has dropped significantly over the past two days, as Kīlauea's summit has deflated. The dropping lava level has allowed lava veneer on the walls of the Overlook crater to fall away, clearly exposing the contact between the original rim of the Overlook crater (which is the original, pre-overflow floor of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater) and the stack of recent lava overflows. These overflows are roughly 8 meters (26 feet) thick in total. Image: USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

The summit lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater has dropped significantly over the past two days, as Kīlauea’s summit has deflated. The dropping lava level has allowed lava veneer on the walls of the Overlook crater to fall away, clearly exposing the contact between the original rim of the Overlook crater (which is the original, pre-overflow floor of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater) and the stack of recent lava overflows. These overflows are roughly 8 meters (26 feet) thick in total.
(Image: USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

“Activity at the summit of Kilauea Volcano continues to change, as shown by a pronounced drop in the level of the lava lake within Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, a change in the summit area deformation pattern, and the concentrated earthquake activity in the southern part of the caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone. This statement reviews recent observations and briefly summarizes what might be expected next at Kilauea.”

Lava lake drops 500 feet at Kilauea:

WHAT WE CAN EXPECT

These recent changes at the summit of Kilauea suggest that magma has moved into a shallow area beneath the southern part of the caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone.

It is not possible to predict the exact outcome of this activity, but we identify three possible scenarios that could play out in the coming days to weeks:

  1. Magma continues to accumulate in the southern part of Kilauea’s summit caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone at shallow depths, but then stops with no eruption.
  2. Magma continues to accumulate in the southern part of the caldera at shallow depths and leads to a rapid intrusion into the Southwest Rift Zone. Such an intrusion could remain within the rift zone, or erupt along the rift zone. A rift zone intrusion would be indicated by a swarm of shallow earthquakes, seismic tremors, and large, rapid changes in the deformation of the ground surface.
  3. Magma continues to accumulate in the southern part of the caldera, rises toward the surface, and erupts in the upper Southwest Rift Zone, and/or in the caldera. With this scenario, we would expect to see even stronger earthquake activity and/or seismic tremors in the southern part of the caldera, as well as ground cracks.

The overall unrest in Kilauea’s summit area and upper rift zones in the coming weeks to months is uncertain.

The magma storage system within Kilauea is highly pressurized at this time, and future changes in the location of unrest, and the potential for eruption, could unfold quickly (in days to hours).

It will be interesting to see what develops over the next few days and weeks.

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