Has a new volcano formed in Hawaii?

Story by David Rothery Professor of Planetary Geosciences, The Open University

The ‘fissure 8’ cone. Photo: US Geological Survey

Kilauea, the most active volcano on Hawaii, has been in continual eruption since 1983. It entered a new phase in early May when fractures along a rift on the eastern side of the volcano opened during a series of earthquakes – some of which became volcanic fissures from which lava was erupted.

These fissures allowed magma that had been ponded in a summit lake to drain onto the ground surface as lava flows lower down the mountain. This was close to a residential subdivision known as Leilani Estates, where a new volcanic cone has since developed.

Kilauea is buttressed on its north-west side by the enormous mass of Mauna Loa volcano, but its south-east slopes face the ocean and are unsupported. The magma from beneath the  usually erupts from the summit of the volcano, and there was a spectacular lava lake there in March. However two rift zones (areas where the volcano is splitting apart), extending east and south-west from the summit, can make it possible for lava to erupts from Kilauea’s flanks too.

The current activity is based along the east rift zone. According to the US Geological Survey, 23 separate new fractures there became volcanic fissures from which lava was erupted. By the end of May, “fissure 8” (the eighth new fissure to have announced itself) had become dominant – with activity at the others ceasing or subsiding. This was the source of the lava that by June 4 was flowing into the sea several miles away near the Vacationland resort, where it completely filled what had previously been Kapoho Bay.

The lava lake in Kilauea’s summit crater (Halemaumau) as it appeared on March 19 2018. Photo: US Geological Survey

By mid-June, the coagulated spatter around the persistently active part of fissure 8 had built a cone approaching 200ft high as seen in the photo below.

The ‘fissure 8’ cone as it appeared on June 15 2018. Photo: US Geological Survey

Separate plumbing

The question naturally arises as to whether this new hill and source of all that lava is a volcano in its own right. If you look on the internet you will typically find “volcano” defined as something like “a landscape feature produced at a site where magma is erupted”. Such a simplistic definition would qualify the “fissure 8” cone as a volcano, but I think just about every professional volcanologist would reject this, on the grounds that it is merely a subsidiary vent belonging to Kilauea.

This is because it is fed by magma from the source that supplies Kilauea as a whole, and could equally well have erupted elsewhere on Kilauea. The new cone at fissure 8 is not significantly more substantial than numerous older subsidiary cones elsewhere on Kilauea.

However, you would search in vain for a formally sanctioned definition of the term “volcano” to quantify the degree of connectedness or mutual size relationships in a way that could settle this issue. On the positive side, the lack of such a definition enables volcanologists to avoid the sometimes bitter controversy over the formal definition of the term “planet” that has plagued astronomers since 2006, when Pluto was demoted to being a “dwarf planet”. But it does leave them open to people arguing that, if the fissure 8 cone is just part of Kilauea, then why don’t we count Kilauea as just part of Mauna Loa?

There is some logic in this, because Kilauea and Mauna Loa both draw their magma from the same source in the Earth’s mantle (the Hawaiian hotspot plume). But in this case professional volcanologists generally agree that these are best regarded as separate systems, and the US Geological Survey rightly regards the situation that way. That’s because activity at Kīlauea has no discernible effect on Mauna Loa’s magmatic system.

A name?

Although I would agree that the fissure 8 vent is not a volcano in its own right, it does surely deserve to be referred to by a suitably memorable designation. The stance of the US Geological Survey is that bestowing names is not up to them.

This, they say, is the right of the local community, which includes the many people who have lost their homes to the new . It could end up being known as Pu’u Leilani (Hawaiian for “Leilani Hill”, after its location), or maybe as something more poetic. But the time for this will be when this phase of the eruption has ended, which might not be for several more weeks.

Originally published in The Conversation

88 thoughts on “Has a new volcano formed in Hawaii?

      • Ted Cruz nominates Mike Lee to be first Mormon on the USSC. Descendant of John Lee, mass murderer hanged for the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre. Lots of Lees in UT, AZ, CO, NM and OR. Murderer had 19 wives and 56 kids. Plus Udall and Smith descendants among pols.

        Would continue Trump’s record of picking Rocky Mountain high court nominees to break regional and religious provincialism on the USSC bench.

        • There will probably be some pressure to choose a female for the Supreme Court.

          There are a lot of good choices, male and female.

          • True. Also a minority. But even with Gorsuch, there is still only one Protestant on the Court, unless Thomas be back in Episcopalian rather than Catholic mode. Many Protestants don’t consider either Episcopalians or Mormons to be Protestants, of course.

            But Trump doesn’t seem to care much. He chose an old white male Veep and a slightly younger white male USSC justice nominee.

      • If Trump be reelected, he’s liable to get to replace Breyer and Ginsburg, too. And Sotomayor isn’t in the best of health. I don’t mind having Kagan on the court as token anti-originalist. She’s kind of cute, for a Lesbian.

        • None of the four of them (the Liberal Justices) can apparently read the U.S. Constitution and understand it.

          They seem to have the opinion that the president cannot bar non-citizens from the United States, but the U.S. Constitution plainly, unequivocally says he can bar any non-citizen at any time.

          There is no religious test the president has to meet. There is no discrimination test the president has to meet. All the president has to do is say “you can’t come in” and that’s the end of it, as far as the U.S. Constitution is concerned.

          • True. But Kagan is kind of cute and charming, and not as crazy as most liberals.

            Why not let her stay on the Court with eight originalists?

  1. I have found this eruption just fascinating as I come from a country (Australia) where we have not had active volcanoes for thousands of years. I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed that when we visited Hawai’i in January that the volcano was not very active and we could not cruise past magma actively entering the sea. I feel a bit guilty now as I have watched the news stories and seen people losing their homes and livelihoods. But nature is just amazing, is it not? How can anyone not be amazed by this and realise how we still need to understand our amazing planet. BTW how can Mauna Loa be a measuring site for CO2 on an active volcanic island? Don’t volcanoes release CO2?

    • Measurements made when winds bring volcanic gases to Mauna Loa are disregarded. Prevailing wind currents generally bring pristine air to the site.

    • Hi Quilter. There are actually two active volcanoes in Australian territory – Heard Island and McDonald Island. And several more if you count the part of Antarctica claimed by Australia!

      • But none on the continent, unless you count New Guinea, on the same plate across the shallow epicontinental sea.

        The most recent eruptions on mainland Australia are in Queensland, two last active within 20,000 years. Possibly as recently as seven and nine thousand years ago.

        • Actually the last eruptions in Australia were in the The South Australian volcanic zone. – Mt Gambier and Mt Schank. Mt Napier in Victoria just a little earlier. Around 5000 years ago. Fissure emissions may have been still prevalent up as recent as 5- 600 years ago.
          Mt. Gambier on the mainland is still classified as technically active. There is a remote possibility of Mt Gambier erupting again.

          • I stand corrected. My relatives lied to me, and I didn’t check their claims out.

            Queensland seemed to make sense, given the direction in which Oz is drifting.

          • I’ve not found literature on it but at Mitre in wimmera vic the “hill” there looks an awful lot like the core of an old volcano, steep sloping sides and a flat top also way different rock type n colour than everything else around

          • Victoria’s Volcanic Plains

            Active volcanoes were part of western Victoria’s landscape from about 4.5 million years ago until as recently as 7,200 years ago, forming one of the World’s largest basalt plains with more than 400 volcanos mapped. Aboriginal people would have witnessed some of these eruptions.

            The Western Basalt Plain stretches from Melbourne to Portland and as wide as Colac to Beaufort. It consists of vast open areas of grasslands, large, shallow lakes, small patches of woodland and stony rises from the once hot lava flows. The low peaks of dormant and extinct volcanoes dot the landscape.

            During pastoral settlement of the volcanic plains, stone was used to construct hundreds of kilometres of dry stone walls and has become a characteristic feature of the Western District landscape.

            Mount Napier, south of Hamilton, consists of a shallow crater, at least 15 smaller basalt and scoria eruption points and elongated lava flows extending along small valleys. The final major eruption of lava flowed along the valley of Harmans Creek for 24 kilometres.

            Still visible near Wallacedale today are lava ridges and clusters of lava tumuli which are circular mounds of rock up to 10 metres high and 20 metres in diameter. This is the only place in Australia where tumuli are found.

            The Byaduk Caves are considered the most extensive and accessible lava caves in Australia. The largest tunnels are up to 18 metres wide, 10 metres high and extend 20 metres below the surface. The caves are accessed through collapsed sections of ‘lava tubes’ which carried lava flows beneath a solidified crust. These tunnels were left after the molten lava flowed away, leaving ‘tide marks’ on the walls.

            The lava from Mount Rouse, at Penshurst, flowed 60 kilometres south to the coast at Port Fairy. The path of the lava can be seen today along creek valleys, as stony rises, lava tubes and caves, and at the Port Fairy beach extending out to sea.

            The Wannon and Nigretta Falls were created by lava flows that surged upstream to the Wannon River. The water cascades over hardened basalt lava.

            Tower Hill, west of Warrnambool, is one of the largest Maar volcanoes in the world. It was formed about 25,000 years ago when rising magma met layers of water-saturated sedimentary rock below the ground. This super-heated steam exploded with the power of a small nuclear bomb, blasting magma and shattered rock high into the air. Inside the 3km wide crater are smaller and younger scoria volcano cones.

          • Mt Gambier
            The Newer Volcanic Province has about 400 volcanoes stretching from Melbourne to Mount Gambier, and it is the main volcanic region in Australia considered to be still active. Mount Gambier’s Blue Lake and the nearby Mount Schank are Australia’s most recently active volcanoes, having erupted about 5,000 years ago

    • I completely agree. I have been glued to the USGS site and the Hawaii Civil Defense site, Tropical Visions site, and some twitter feeds. I can’t get enough. It is hard to comprehend how rapidly a nice community was turned into a moonscape.

    • I walked across the Halemaumau crater in 1978, before the continual eruptions began in 1983. It was very different then.

      • I also was on top of Mauna Kea in the same visit (4200 meters tall). Great view from up there of most of the island.

    • Go to the web site for Mauna Loa and read the explanation. It is very clear.
      That will save a long comment here. That has already been done. Likely more than once in the past 10 years.

  2. I’m not a geologist, but I can say with confidence that fissure 8 is not a separate volcano. Shield volcanos are formed when the lava is relatively low viscosity. As the magma chamber pushes up from beneath the crust, it can cause rifts. Fissure 8 is a place where the rift opened up enough for lava from Kilauea to “leak” out the side, rather than through the crater, which is currently in the process of collapsing. At some point, if it continues to grow, fissure 8 will be given a name, probably pu’u , which translates to hill. If the pressure in the magma chamber underneath Kilauea increases again to the point where the flow exceeds the capacity of the rift, the crater will fill up again like it did previously. That may happen next week, next year or next century or never. There is no way to know. There is already another volcano forming below the surface, south east of the big island. Eventually, it will become the next big thing.

  3. About 20 miles south of Kilauea, there is another volcano building on the deep sea floor. I think it’s like 3000 feet high but still like 8000ft below the sea surface.

    • Loihi Seamount.

      Its close enough to the Big Island, that they might merge when Loihi emerges above the waves.

    • As Kilauea merged with Mauna Loa, and Mauna Loa merged with Mauna Kea, to form the Big Island.

      Suggestive that the Hawaiian hot spot may be getting hotter and more active in the last million years or so. Or that the Pacific plate is slowing down. Or something.

      • It’s definitely something. But there are earlier mergers, too. Oahu, Molokai and Maui each formed from two volcanoes. And Maui and the Big Island are almost scarily close to each other. And there’s a bigger than average gap between Kauai and Oahu.

        Stuff happens. The Emperor Seamounts show that the Pacific Plate changed direction.

        • I believe at one time Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe were all one “big island”. Then, as most volcanic islands do after the volcanoes become extinct, the island began to sink and erode back into the sea to form the separate islands. These islands, along with Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau will over millions of years, disappear leaving only a series of atoll reefs. Hawaii Island itself will eventually meet the same fate. The hotspot will probably continue creating new islands for an unknown length of time into the distant future.

          There is a theory that around the time Oahu was formed, the hotspot split in two, each with a slightly different type of lava. The southernmost hotspot forms Hualālai, Mauna Loa, and Kīlauea, while the northern hotspot forms Haleakalā (on Maui), Kohala, and Mauna Kea. On Google Maps, you can trace the parallel lines of mountain peaks back toward Oahu. The different lava types would explain why Haleakalā and Mauna Kea have steeper slopes than Mauna Loa.

          • Some of the islands are also probably conjoined during low sea level of glacial phases, which last much longer than interglacials such as now.

            That would be true if the channels between them are less than 400 feet deep.

            Shamed to admit that I haven’t looked at Hawaiian bathymetry.

      • Found: The missing hot spot… 200 km below Hawaii.
        Someone should tell Ben Santer.

      • If Kilauea were to drop into the sea, as has happened before in Hawaiian geological history, the resulting tsunami would of biblical proportions.

        Correct me if wrong, but IIRC, there is evidence of 1000-feet tsunamis on Oahu.

        • It appears that some of the most attractive places on earth are not well-suited to long-term habitation by man.
          Maybe if we reduce our CO2 pollution, the magical effect will make nature as gentle and serene (thinking Krakatoa, here) as it was before the industrial age made human existence more satisfying than just merely surviving.

  4. It looks like volcanic activity is picking up over the globe. This I think is response to the weakening of the solar/geo magnetic fields. If explosive volcanic activity does indeed increase on a upward trend moving forward there will be climatic implications.

  5. Or if there are a lot of gases containing sulfur, it could become known as Pe’u Leilani.

  6. From the ‘Glossary of Geology’ 3ed. Bates and Jackson (1987): parasitic [volc] Said of a volcanic cone, crater, or lava flow that occurs on the side of a larger cone; it is subsidiary form. Syn: lateral [volc]; adventive.

  7. Presumably the action is not entirely on public land. The property issues will be very interesting. Given it’s Hawaii those issues may be well established.

  8. This Kilauea eruption is quite similar to the 2014-15 eruption of Bárðarbunga in Iceland.

    I keep an eye on the Icelandic Met Office earthquakes page. In the run up to the fissure eruption there were numerous tremors in a line stretching farther and farther to the NE of the volcano as the magma forced its way along a sub-surface dike over several weeks. Eventually it found a way to the surface at Holuhraun about 40 km away from the central volcano. The resulting outpouring of lava covered ~85 sq km.

  9. …”But the time for this will be when this phase of the eruption has ended, which might not be for several more weeks.”
    Weeks ?, ya really shouldn’t tempt Her 🙂

  10. What seems to have dropped off the radar is the Hilina Slump, that’s the side of Kilauea that Fissure 8 is effecting. If that slope lets go the wave could overtop the saddle on Maui and inundate Oahu as far island as Schofield Barracks. The entire Pacific Rim would be in a world of wet hurt.

    • I think the 97% consensus among geologists is that the Hilina Slump is unlikely to fail catastrophically. I will probably just slowly, well … slump, oceanward.

  11. Any careful observer on the big island will note there are hundreds of cinder cones that are hundreds of feet high and many are very large in circumference, well over a mile in many instances. A favorite place to see these is in Kamuela above Hawaii Preparatory Academy. That will give some perspective on the nature of the island.

  12. I have no idea whether there is a new volcano. But I do know that, for some reason, I really, really want to visit Israel!

  13. Fissure 8 actually exited at the location of an older vent and small cone. You can see the cone in google earth quite easily. Why people seem to be surprised is beyond me.

    The bulk of the lava flow is along an existing geologic feature right in to the bay. Something that can be seen in photos of the area going back years.

    • It’s interesting to note that some of the existing cones from a previous eruption seem to have diverted the lava flow away from the main facilities at Puna Geothermal Ventures, and prevented total inundation of the plant.

      • Those guys (PGV) seem to have had horseshoes up their … Lava came at them three times and stopped just short each time. Anyway, for now they have sustained minimal damage and should be able to revive the plant with a few months of work. Hopefully those channel walls continue to hold up.

    • I have to say I thought you were mistaken, but I think I do see a small cone near by Fissure 8.
      N19° 27.752′ W154° 54.598′
      The cone is (was?) about 100m from where Hawaii Civil Defense reports the fissure to be and is no where as large as the new cone. Compare the current eruption to the Kapoho cone. That must have been a much larger eruption.

      Edit: never mind, the Kapoho crater appears to be a pseudocrater (aka rootless cone, created when lava flows across groundwater).

  14. Has the EPA issued the State of Hawaii with a carbon pollution fine yet for all the CO2 being expelled in this eruption?

  15. on youtube some residents were showing a series of new cracks that were widening fast and emitting pretty hot vapour
    they failed to state where they were;-/
    but their home was over one widening rift..I would have been packed and out well before that;-)

  16. Fissure 8 is literally the first privately owned vent in the United States as Hawaii has declared that land owners do not lose their property rights simply because their land is covered with lava. (Nor will state of Hawaii force them to sell). So we run into the issue of “what do Fissure 8’s owners wish to name it” and the requirement that the islander’s elders can say no.

    It all gets really entertaining. To be honest it’s dead smack in the middle of Luana St and already has a valid official mailing address.

    So I guess if we all start calling it “The Luana St. Vent” maybe we’ll get enough pressure.

    But keep in mind that the column load of magma/lava inside is now exceeding 120psi at ground level and Fissure 8 may not be alone for much longer. Fissure 6 is another 300′ further downhill. Its a waiting game.

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