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Kīlauea’s Ongoing Puʻu ʻŌʻō Eruption Turns 30

January 3, 2013

The following is this week’s edition of “Volcano Watch” from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (USGS):

January 1983: Initial eruptive fissure on the east rift zone of Kilauea. (USGS)

January 3, 2013, marks the 30th anniversary of Kīlauea’s ongoing Puʻu ʻŌʻō eruption. Simplifying the past three decades into a single short article belies the eruption’s complex past. So, let’s just look at the major changes that define Kīlauea’s long-lived East Rift Zone activity.

A series of intrusions and comparatively short-lived eruptions occurred along Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone from the early 1960s through the early 1980s. So, the opening of a new fissure in the same general area on January 3, 1983, was expected to follow the same pattern. But, after the eruption had focused at a single spot along the fissure six months later and had begun producing towering lava fountains, it was recognized that this eruption was different.

Located on the second “o” in “Lava flow of 1965″ as printed on the U.S. Geological Survey topographic map current in 1983, the Puʻu “O” pyroclastic cone—later renamed Puʻu ʻŌʻō—grew taller with the eruption of each fountain. Eventually reaching a height of 255 meters (835 ft), Puʻu ʻŌʻō loomed above the surrounding landscape. The lava fountains, which occurred about every 3 weeks and lasted about a day, spawned fast-moving ʻaʻā flows, some of which destroyed houses in the sparsely populated Royal Gardens subdivision.

August 1986: Pu`u `O`o cone at maturity.

In July 1986, the magma conduit beneath Puʻu ʻŌʻō ruptured, and the eruption shifted 3 kilometers (2 miles) to the east and changed style. Instead of episodic lava fountains, the nearly continuous discharge of lava flows prevailed. A broad, low lava shield named Kupaianaha soon formed, and pāhoehoe lava flows crept downslope, eventually reaching the ocean.

The change from fountaining to nearly continuous effusion marked a fundamental change in the development of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō flow field, and the hazards presented by the eruption. Though they traveled much more slowly, the pāhoehoe flows constructed lava tubes as they advanced, slowing the cooling rate of the lava, and permitting flows to reach the more populous coastline. Houses were destroyed on both sides of the widening flow field, including the partial destruction of Kalapana in 1990.

Further devastation was spared when, in February 1992, the Kupaianaha vent died and the eruption shifted to new vents on the southwest flank of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō cone. Lava again advanced downslope, constructing new lava tubes and widening the existing flow field, mostly within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The southwest flank of Puʻu ʻŌʻō was slowly buried by a growing lava shield, which became pockmarked with collapse pits.

May 1998: View into skylight shows lava cascading down a steep slope. (USGS)

In January 1997, the magma conduit west of Puʻu ʻŌʻō ruptured, cutting the supply of magma to the ongoing eruption. The floor of Puʻu ʻŌʻō’s crater dropped 150 meters (500 ft), and the west wall of Puʻu ʻŌʻō collapsed, forming a deep notch in the cone. A few hours later, lava erupted for about a day from new fissures near Nāpau Crater, west of Puʻu ʻŌʻō.

Three weeks later, the eruption resumed from vents on Puʻu ʻŌʻō’s southwest flank, sending new flows downslope through the national park and building new tubes. This activity predominated for the next 10 years—until June 2007, when the brief Father’s Day fissure eruption west of Puʻu ʻŌʻō shuffled the deck again. The crater floor of Puʻu ʻŌʻō collapsed, and Kīlauea entered an eruptive hiatus that ended the following month with the return of lava to Puʻu ʻŌʻō.

This change culminated in the opening of the “Fissure D” vent between Puʻu ʻŌʻō and Kupaianaha. This vent sent flows to the ocean along Kīlauea’s southeast coast for much of the next 4 years, eventually reaching Kalapana Gardens and destroying three homes.

October 2012: Incandescent lines mark the boundaries between migrating crustal plates on the surface of the lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu crater. Here, and at other lava lakes across the world, these rifting zones have a characteristic zigzag pattern. (USGS)

March 2011 brought another change to Puʻu ʻŌʻō and the flow field. As in 1997 and 2007, a brief fissure eruption west of Puʻu ʻŌʻō was accompanied by collapse of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater floor and the subsequent cessation of eruptive activity along the East Rift Zone. The resumption of activity in late March refilled Puʻu ʻŌʻō, and, in September 2011, a new vent opened high on the east flank of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō cone. This “Peace Day” vent has since carried lava back to Kīlauea’s southeastern coast, where it continues to sporadically enter the ocean today.

The diversity of Puʻu ʻŌʻō’s past makes a summary like this challenging. Each new day brings more changes, so all details cannot be included, no matter how exciting. To date, about 4 cubic kilometers (about 1 cubic mile) of lava have been erupted, covering 126 square kilometers (48 square miles) of land and destroying 214 structures. Only time will tell what the next 30 years have in store.

Kīlauea Activity Update

A lava lake within the Halemaʻumaʻu Overlook vent produced nighttime glow that was visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and via HVO’s Webcam during the past week. Deflation at Kīlauea’s summit, likely the start of a deflation-inflation (DI) cycle, began on Monday, December 31 and was ongoing as of this writing (Thursday, January 3). The level of the lava lake level dropped in response, leading to small collapses from the rim of the lake.

On Kīlauea’s east rift zone, surface lava flows remain active on the coastal plain near the eastern boundary of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Lava is entering the ocean on both side of the boundary. Within Puʻu ʻŌʻō, glow and small, sporadic lava flows emanate from openings in the northeastern, northwestern, and southeastern parts of the crater floor.

There were two felt earthquakes reported on the Island of Hawaiʻi in the past week. On December 30, 2012, at 5:24 p.m., HST, a magnitude-2.9 earthquake occurred 7 km (4 mi) west of Kailua-Kona at a depth of 34 km ( 21 mi). On January 3, 2013, at 6:15 a.m., a magnitude-2.8 earthquake occurred 9 km (6 mi) east of Mauna Kea Summit at a depth of 25 km (16 mi).

This is the current webcam view from the temporary research camera positioned at the Halemaʻumaʻu Overlook Vent. (USGS)

Visit the HVO Web site ( for detailed Kīlauea and Mauna Loa activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes, and more; call (808) 967-8862 for a Kīlauea activity summary; email questions to

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