BBC News

Hawaii's Kilauea: Volcano's dramatic images explained

Published
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionLava burst from the ground in Kapoho on Thursday, two weeks after the first eruption

In early May, one of Hawaii's active volcanoes - which helped create the islands - erupted. Volcanic gases have been erupting from fissures ever since, producing dramatic photographs and video.

Two weeks later, it is still erupting. Here, volcanologists Tamsin Mather and David Pyle from Oxford University explain what's happening beneath the surface.

Creation and destruction

Kīlauea volcano is the most active volcano on Hawaii's Big Island.

There has been an ongoing eruption to the east of the summit in the East Rift Zone since 1983, mainly centred around the Pu'u 'Ō'ō vent.

image copyrightUSGS / Getty Images
image caption3 May: Ash spews from the Pu'u 'Ō'ō crater, as it erupts after an earthquake

Lava fountains and flows have covered more than 144 sq km and added more than 443 acres of new land to the island.

As of 2016, lava flows had already destroyed 215 structures and buried 14.3 km of roads.

The crater's lava lake

In 2008 a new gas vent opened up at Kīlauea's summit in the Halema'uma'u crater. Over the following months and years, this slowly developed into a lava lake.

image copyrightUSGS / Getty Images
image caption6 May: The summit lava lake, which had dropped in level

During March and April this year the lava level rose, and lava began to spill out across the crater floor.

Just two weeks later, the lava had dropped out of sight.

image copyrightGetty Images
image caption9 May: A plume rises from the Halema'uma'u crater, lit by the lava lake below

A creeping lava flow

Kīlauea lavas are among the hottest on Earth. After magma spills out of the fissure, the surface quickly crusts over, forming a shell.

Inside, though, the lava is still red hot - and mobile.

image copyrightReuters
image captionA road in Leilani Estates blocked by what was once flowing molten lava on 13 May

As the whole mass of lava creeps forward, the blocks and plates of cooled lava are carried along, giving the whole the appearance of a jumble of loose blocks.

In places, fresh lava breaks out from inside the flow, to form a narrow stream.

image copyrightGetty Images
image caption12 May: A local, wearing her gas mask, walks by the molten flows in Pahoa

The emerging lava is red-hot at the opening, and progressively crinkles and crusts over as it flows downhill.

  • Reality Check: What stops eruptions of lava?
  • Hawaii volcano spews 'ballistic blocks'
  • Dozens of homes destroyed by volcano
image copyrightReuters
image caption13 May: A fissure spews lava and volcanic gas, east of Leilani Estates

Fiery curtains of lava

Geologists have been watching Kīlauea continuously since 1912, and have developed a simple understanding of how the magma flows under Kīlauea.

It rises out of the Earth's mantle under the summit, and then flows along subterranean fractures beneath the East Rift Zone.

image copyrightReuters
image caption17 May: A geologist inspects cracks after an explosive eruption

In this phase of the eruption, the movement of the magma is causing new fractures to open at the surface.

Some of these fractures just let hot gases escape; others turn into open fissures, erupting fiery curtains of lava.

image copyrightReuters
image caption15 May: Erupting ash makes for a photo opportunity - from a safe distance

The steady lowering of the lava lake within Halema'umaʻu at the summit of Kīlauea raised the potential for explosive eruptions as the lava column drops to the level of groundwater beneath the volcano.

Explosive plumes

The mixing of groundwater with the hot magma can cause steam-driven explosions.

image copyrightGetty Images
image caption15 May: The glow from open fissures lights up the volcanic gas at night

Seventeen fissures have opened so far in the lower East Rift Zone spewing out dangerous lava and gases.

Some of these gases, such as sulphur dioxide, reduce air quality and cause breathing problems, especially among risk groups such as asthmatics.

image copyrightAFP
image caption15 May: A thick plume rises from one of the island's craters

Activity can change rapidly and is hard to predict precisely.

Future outbreaks could occur both uprift (southwest) and downrift (northeast) of the existing fissures – or existing fissures can be reactivated.

Tamsin Mather and David Pyle are volcanologists and both professors at Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences.

Related Topics

  • Volcanoes
  • Hawaii

More on this story

  • Kilauea: Hawaii volcano destroys dozens of homes

  • Hawaii volcano sends 30,000ft plume into the air