For now, scientists in Hawaii and around the world are watching Kilauea and waiting to see what else the volcano will do. “This has so far been playing out how USGS said it would,” says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. “That itself is incredible.”
“We’ll be working on this set of data for our careers,” says Michael Poland, a geophysicist at the US Geological Survey (USGS) Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.
After weeks of unleashing earthquakes and lava flows that have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has finally blown its top. Because Kilauea is one of the best-monitored volcanoes in the world, scientists hope that data on the event will help them to better predict when similar volcanoes are about to erupt.
The USGS, continues Sara Reardon in today’s Nature, says that the eruption began at 4:15 am local time on 17 May, when the volcano sent a plume of ash and steam more than 9,100 metres into the air. The many instruments on and around Kilauea were watching. The volcano bristles with equipment that continuously measures signs of geological activity, such as ground movement, lava chemistry and seismic vibrations.
Debris came rocketing out of Kilauea during the steam eruption on 17 May.Credit: USGS-HVO
The first hint of an impending eruption came with a series of earthquakes on 3 May. Soon after, fissures opened up in the ground as far as 40 kilometres away from the volcano’s rim — oozing lava that forced about 2,000 people to evacuate. The openings also depressurized the network of underground channels beneath Kilauea, including its lava chamber. As a result, the lava level within the volcano’s crater quickly dropped by more than 30 metres. It was, Poland says, “like someone pulled the plug in a bathtub”.
That caused the walls of the volcano to begin crumbling into the crater, creating a layer of rock atop the surface of the remaining lava. And once the surface of the still-draining lava dropped below the water table, water began to seep into the crater, creating steam and pressure beneath the freshly formed rock cap.
Scientists at the USGS’s nearby Hawaiian Volcano Observatory suspected that a steam explosion was imminent: in 1924, the same pattern of oozing fissures around Kilauea had heralded a series of explosions.
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