US & Canada

Hawaii's Kilauea: Volcano's dramatic images explained

Lava erupts following eruptions at the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on 17 May 2018 in Kapoho, Hawaii Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lava 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.

Ash spews from the Puu Oo crater on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano on 3 May 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Image copyright USGS / Getty Images
Image caption 3 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.

The summit lava lake reportedly dropped in levels after the eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano on 6 May 2018 near Pahoa, Hawaii Image copyright USGS / Getty Images
Image caption 6 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.

Stars shine above as a plume rises from the Halemaumau crater, at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on 9 May 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 9 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.

A lava flow covers a road in the Leilani Estates subdivision during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., May 13, 2018. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A 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.

Lava flows at a new fissure in the aftermath of eruptions from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island as a local resident walks nearby after taking photos on 12 May 2018 in Pahoa, Hawaii Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 12 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.

Lava erupts from a fissure east of the Leilani Estates subdivision during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii on 13 May 2018. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption 13 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.

A geologist inspects cracks on a road in Leilani Estates, following eruption of Kilauea volcano, Hawaii on 17 May 2018. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption 17 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.

People watch as ash erupts from the Halemaumau crater near the community of Volcano during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, US on 15 May 2018. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption 15 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.

MAY 15: Lava from active fissures illuminates volcanic gases from the Kilauea volcano amidst stars on Hawaii's Big Island on 15 May 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 15 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.

This US Geological Survey (USGS) image released on 15 May 2018 shows an ash plume rising following a massive volcano eruption on Kilauea volcano in Hawaii Image copyright AFP
Image caption 15 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

More on this story