Mauna Loa Concerns

Like most armchair volcanologists on this island I have been monitoring Mauna Loa more closely lately. The deformation graphs in particular have been? Interesting. I have even gone so far as predicting that we will not get through the year without a Mauna Loa eruption.

An intense earthquake swarm on the NW flank of Mauna Loa
An intense earthquake swarm on the NW flank of Mauna Loa, March 30, 2021

The area of concern has been the western rift zone, exhibiting steady and shallow seismic activity for the last several years. More concerning is the rate of inflation shown in the GPS data, This seems to have doubled in rate around last October.

Then comes today.

An intense seismic swarm is currently occurring beneath the NW flank. Still fairly deep. a few kilometers below the surface, but getting shallower. Magma is definitely moving, a sizable mass moving upwards and emplacing itself higher in the volcano.

This may come to nothing in the near term. Like many seismic swarms it may stop. Just part of the process towards a future eruption some years from now, or never. Or we may be seeing the first step in a new eruption. I will hold to my prediction of an eruption sometime in 2021.

Sit back and watch.

Visiting the New Lake

The lava burst forth from the crater wall just before Christmas. After two years of quiet the volcano has again erupted. Within hours the lake of water that had been slowly growing had been boiled away in a huge plume of steam.

Gazing into creation at Kilauea Caldera
Gazing into creation at Kilauea Caldera with the stars of Crux and Alpha Centauri above

I knew within minutes that an eruption had begun, tapped into the island grapevine. While I considered making a midnight run across island I had to bow to the needs of life and regretfully went to bed.

Now well into the new year I finally had a chance to photograph the new lava lake.

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One Year Ago…

On June 3rd, 2018 Deb and I flew over the ongoing eruption of Kilauea. It seems so long ago, it seems like yesterday.

Fissure 8 Lava Fountain
The lava fountain at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates throwing lava hundreds of feet in the air on June 3rd, 2018

We looked down on a broad flow front, over a mile wide. The flow burning through orchid farms and papaya orchards, destruction that was painful to watch.

We looked down on a lava fountain hundreds of feet high. Fissure 8 was supplying a river of lava that spelled doom for Kapoho Bay and the beautiful tidepools at Waiʻopae.

A year later the lava is still cooling and the community is still rebuilding. Kilauea is quiet with no lava on the surface anywhere. We wonder where the next eruption will be.

May 18th, 1980

Living with an eruption of our local volcano through much of last year often brought to mind previous memories. The 2019 Kilauea eruption was the second eruption of my life, the first being the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens.

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens taken on the morning of May 18th, 1980, photo credit USGS
The eruption of Mt. St. Helens taken on the morning of May 18th, 1980, photo credit USGS

St. Helens was just another of the pretty mountains that dotted the horizon through much of my childhood. I could see it from my bedroom window, at least in the winter when the leaves were off the trees.

When the mountian started rumbling in the early months of 1980 everyone wondered if it will erupt. No one expected it to do what it did.

We did not hear the eruption, somehow the sound skipped over those nearer the volcano. It was the television news that first alerted us.

Seeing the reporting I ran out of the house and down the street a little bit to where I could see past the maple trees. There was nothing to be seen of that pretty mountain, just a dark line in the sky rising from where the mountain stood. West of the line it was a cloudy NW sky, east of the line is was just black.

After the eruption we could no longer see the mountain on the horizon, with 1,500ft gone from the top it no longer stood above the ridgelines.

A Walk in the Park

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park reopened to the public at the end of September. Reshaped by the eruptions the park has substantially changed since I was last there back in February. It was well past time I got myself out to the park to see the changes, it had been open almost two months!

Julian examines a lava mushroom near the 1969 fissure on the Mauna Ulu trail
I had resolved to go over the long holiday weekend. An additional idea occurred to me, if I was going, why not kidnap my young nephews along for the trip. We would leave the gals to whatever they will do, and go have an adventure.

Off we go.

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The End in Sight?

When will this eruption end? The answer to that is a question many are asking on this island. Today we might just be seeing the answer.

Tiltmeter data from the summit of Kilauea, 5Aug2018
Tiltmeter data from the summit of Kilauea, as of 5 Aug, 2018 over the past month
Reports and photographs from the eruption zone show a greatly diminished fissure 8, a mere shadow of the lava fountains visible a month ago. The once vigorous lava channel is now sluggish and crusting over in places.

Even more interesting is the deformation data from the summit.

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Please Define Normal

We are now more than two months into this new eruption from Kilauea. Two months ago the fissures opened in the Leilani Estates subdivision and homes began to burn.

Fissure 8 Lava Fountain
The lava fountain at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates throwing lava hundreds of feet in the air on June 4th, 2018
For two months this slow motion catastrophe has continued. While a major earthquake may be over in minutes, or a hurricane over in a few days, this eruption just goes on. For the folks in lower Puna the lava continues to destroy homes and disrupt lives.

For those of us outside the eruption zone things are not quite as immediate. We read the daily news, peruse images of helicopter overflights each morning, and wonder when it will be over.

The multiple county civil defense status reports and various emergency alerts that pop up on our phones each day provide current information… A bit of the Mamalahoa Highway has collapsed in Volcano Village with a one lane restriction, the road to Kalapana has re-opened, there is no tsunami threat from that last 5.4 magnitude earthquake.

July 7, 2018 Summit Collapse Earthquake
A plot of the July 7, 2018 summit collapse earthquake as recorded by an accelerometer in the Keck Observatory foundation
Every day is punctuated by a magnitude five point something earthquake. These summit collapse events have become very regular. You can guess when they will occur as the frequency of small quakes increase around the caldera.

For the most part these events pass unnoticed by much of the island. The volcano area gets shaken up pretty well, but these fifth magnitude quakes are often not felt very far beyond that.

On the summit of Mauna Kea these daily quakes often do disturb the telescopes at night, bumping the tracking and ruining exposures, but otherwise too weak to cause any damage to the facilities.

Hualālai peeks over a thick layer of volcanic smog, or vog
Hualālai peeks over a thick layer of volcanic smog, or vog
The most significant island wide impact has been the vog, wreathing the island in a sulfurous haze. Sulfur dioxide pours from the active vents, mixes with water in the air and forms a thick brown grey haze.

When the vog is bad you not only see it, you smell the sulfur, it irritates eyes and nasal passages. Fire and brimstone reaches out to touch us all.

While the vog makes for spectacular sunsets, the vog can also be thick enough to curtail outside activity. A day like today, with brisk trade-winds to clear it away, is a welcome relief.

Fissure 8 Lava Fountain
The lava fountain at fissure 8 rising about 250 feet as this Kiluaea eruption continues unabated.
Opportunities to legally witness this eruption are few, authorities have been enforcing the evacuation area increasingly strictly. Legal options are the fly or float to the eruption. Deb and I chose to fly a month ago, a helicopter flight I am sure we will remember for a lifetime.

I have not attempted to go to photograph the lava river, despite a very strong desire to do so. The county and state have repeatedly talked about opening a lava viewing area. while there is a great deal of pressure from the community, so far nothing has materialized.

We are so ready for this eruption to be over.

Given the collapse of the summit caldera and the enormous volume of lava emitted so far, it may be possible that when this is over there will be no further eruption for a while. It may take a while for the volcano to recharge, perhaps a year or two. Will we return to the pattern of intermittent eruptions that was seen through much of the 20th century?

Burning Farms

One of the most poignant scenes we witnessed was the many farms destroyed by the lava

Flow Front
The front of the fissure 8 flow approaches Kapoho Bay
We took our helicopter ride Sunday morning, June 3rd. At this point the large flow from fissure 8 had not yet reached the neighborhoods at Kapoho. What the flow was burning through were the many papaya orchards and flower growers found above the bay.

Houses are bad enough, seeing the farms in front of the lava flow was worse. I found myself looking through the telephoto lens at the neat greenhouses, the orchards green in the morning sunlight. The wide flow front was in the process of destroying so many farms, remorselessly moving through the neat rows of papaya trees.

Orchid Plantation Inc.
The greenhouses of Orchid Plantation Inc. disappearing under the lava.
I am aware of how much a farmer puts into the land… Sweat, blood, heart and soul. I look at the photos and I see immaculate operations… Well maintained buildings, no weeds around the structures, the pitiless lava flow advancing. Each scene that appeared in the camera viewfinder was gut-wrenching.

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