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Watching the volcano: What determines the pause of an eruption?

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The recent change of the Kilauea Volcano Alert Level, from “Watch” to “Advisory,” has attracted some attention.

The summary of the USGS’ Hawaiian Volcano Observatory weekly update on June 1 reads: “Kilauea volcano is no longer erupting. No surface activity observed… It is possible that the Halema’uma’u vent will resume eruption or Kilauea will enter a period of calm.” before the next explosion.”

We pick up the conversation where the “Volcano Watch” article left off last week, with a more detailed explanation of why a three-month window is useful in determining the “stop” of a volcanic eruption. We will look at this from a global (statistical) perspective and from a Kilauea (historical) perspective.

The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Project maintains a database of all known volcanic eruptions. This database provides a wide range of eruption statistics, including global averages of eruption frequency and stops. For well-observed known eruptions, a “pause” in activity within an eruption can continue for up to 90 days.

When a hiatus continues in activity for longer than 90 days, it usually (but not always) becomes a much longer period of volcanic rest and can extend from years to thousands of years (like a frequently active volcano versus a sleepy stratovolcano). So any new volcanic activity becomes the ‘next eruption’. A new volcanic eruption can begin in the same area – eg, the ‘peak zone’ – or in a different area such as a rift zone, and must be preceded by its own preparatory disturbances which are typical of this volcano.

If the eruption is to resume activity, it often occurs within a 90-day window, and usually (but not always), the lava resumes erupting from the same vent. Reviewing Kilauea’s recorded history since 1823, the Smithsonian’s window of 90-day inactivity holds true with one exception. A 3.5-month hiatus occurred during the eruption of the Maunaulu volcano in 1969-1974.

The following longer pauses on Kilauea were recorded during the first three years (1983-86) of the Pu’u ‘O’o eruption in the Middle East Kilauea Rift Zone, where 48 short-lived eruptions of the High Fountain were separated by variable pauses lasting days to months. . The longest pauses between high-fountain episodes were 3 to 4 (65 days), episodes 32 to 33 (52 days), episodes 12 to 13 (50 days), episodes 39 to 40 (49 days), episodes 25 to 26 (43 days), and episodes 31 to 32 (38 days). The Kilauea Iki eruption in 1959 was also paused for hours to several days between bouts of the lava fountain.

The pauses between occasional fountains during these eruptions are also called “rest periods”. HVO scientists were able to tell that the eruption only paused because each episode of the fountains was followed by predictable patterns of rapid inflation and surging earthquake activity.

All other well-documented mid-eruption pauses resumed during the Kilauea eruption within a month or less. Recently, there were two eruption pauses in the Lower East Rift Zone at Kilauea 2018. From May 9-12, 2018, a 63-hour pause ended with an explosion from a new vent, fissure 16. However, at Ahuʻailaʻau (fissure 8) ), there was a 15-day pause in the lava eruption at the end of August 2018 before lava reappeared at Ahuʻailaʻau during September 1-4. After 90 days out of the window, HVO determined the eruption was over. Kilauea entered a 2.25-year period of rest that ended with the crack-top eruption of Halemaʻumaʻu crater that began on December 20, 2020.

Kilauea’s most recent eruption within Halema’uma’u has been provisionally identified on May 27, after a period of no visible lava, no lake surface rise, and a decrease in sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. If the pause lasts until August 24, it likely means that this volcanic eruption is over.

In the past, several volcanic eruptions have occurred within Halema’uma’u crater – the home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano god. Continued close monitoring of Kilauea by HVO over the next several months will inform us if the eruption will continue or if we have to wait longer for the next eruption to begin. Calm between eruptions can last from months to decades on Kilauea and HVO are monitoring Kilauea volcano closely for any signs of renewed activity.

Visit https://www.usgs.gov/observatories/hawaiian-volcano-observatory for past articles on the Volcano Watch, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano images and maps, recent earthquake information and more. Email questions to [email protected]

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea volcano does not erupt. USGS Volcano Alert Level in ADVISORY (https://www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/volcano-hazards/about-alert-levels). Kilauea updates are released weekly.

The supply of lava to the lava lake Halemaʻumaʻu has ceased and SO2 emissions have decreased to approximately pre-eruptive background levels. The peak slopes have recorded slight and fluctuating deflationary cycles over the past week. Earthquakes have generally remained stable, with a slight increase in the number of earthquakes and tremors over the past week. There are currently no indications that a resumption of volcanic activity is imminent. Kilauea is still an active volcano and future eruptions may occur at the summit or elsewhere on the volcano. For more information on current monitoring of Kilauea volcano, see https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/Kilauea/monitoring.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and is still at volcano alert level. This alert level does not mean that a volcano eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption from the current level of disturbance is certain. Mauna Loa updates are released weekly.

In the past week, about 55 small-scale earthquakes were recorded below Mauna Loa; Most of these occurred below the summit and higher elevations at depths less than about 5 miles. GPS measurements show low rates of distortion in the summit region over the past week. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at both the summit and in the sulfur cone of the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Webcams do not show any changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa, see: https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/monitoring.

There have been four events with three or more perceptible reports in the Hawaiian Islands over the past week: a 4.0-magnitude earthquake 26 miles east and southeast of Nalihu on June 2 at 6:44 p.m., and a 2.8-magnitude earthquake 3 miles from south to southwest. From a volcano on June 2 at 4:14 p.m., a 3.4-magnitude earthquake 6 miles northeast of Pahala on May 31 at 5:59 a.m., a 3.2-magnitude earthquake 11 miles west-northwest of Kalua On May 29 at 11:13 pm

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