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Volcano Watch: The blast of the century at Kīlauea

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“Volcano Watch” is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

Kīlauea began erupting explosively 100 years ago this week, for the first time in nearly a century. The eruption lasted about 17 days, killing one person and injuring others.

A crowd of visitors from the steamships Haleakalā and Matsonia view the eruption plume from the front of Volcano House in May 1924. They were subsequently warned by Ruy H. Finch, acting director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, that it was unwise to remain there. (USGS photo)

The eruption took place from Halemaʻumaʻu at Kīlauea’s summit, but was foreshadowed by a seismic crisis and intrusion of magma in lower Puna, 30 miles away.

In February 1924, the lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu began to drain back underground. In mid-April, lower Puna was shaking almost constantly, and the ground was cracking open as lava from the emptying lake traveled underground into the lower East Rift Zone.

The crisis died by April 28, before lava could erupt, and agricultural field hands that had been evacuated resumed their work.

At the summit, the floor of Halemaʻumaʻu began dropping on or before April 29 and was 328 feet lower by May 7, the last measurement date. Rock falls from the crater wall generated thick dust clouds.

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Red-hot “ʻaʻā paste” left over from the drained lava lake peeled away from the wall, but observers noted no wholesale collapse.

The first explosion was unobserved during the night of May 10–11 and ejected blocks weighing more than 330 pounds as far as 200 feet from the crater. After relative calm May 11–12, the eruption took off in earnest May 13.

Thereafter, more than 50 distinct explosions occurred until May 27, when the eruption ended.

Thousands of rocks were tossed high in the air, littering the caldera floor. Intense electrical storms accompanied some of the explosions, and lightning took out powerlines far down the road to Hilo.

Earthquakes shook the ground, and mud rains with pellets the size of peas (called accretionary lapilli) pummeled the summit. Blocks weighing several tons landed more than half a mile from the crater; one 8-ton block that landed about a mile southeast of the crater became a signed visitor site for many years, even surviving the caldera collapse of 2018.

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The explosive crescendo was Sunday, May 18, when the two largest explosions occurred.

A number of observers were on the caldera floor during the first, and one, Truman Taylor, was fatally injured by a falling rock. By remarkable coincidence, 56 years later, the devastating eruption of Mount Saint Helens happened Sunday, May 18, 1980, and both eruptions killed a man named Truman.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The Kīlauea explosion that fatally injured Truman Taylor. Photograph taken by Kenichi Maehara from Uēkahuna Bluff at 11:15 a.m. May 18, 1924. (USGS photo)

Most of the ash from the explosions was blown southwestward by the trade wind, but some, perhaps supplied by higher eruption columns that overtopped the trade wind regime, fell from South Hilo to lower Puna. Railroad travel in Makuʻu was disrupted when the tracks became slippery from wet ash. Rain washed ash from the roof of the Glenwood store, tearing off the gutters.

Overall, though, the production of ash was modest, and, after only 20 years, it was hard to find ash deposits outside the caldera, as wind and water swept them away.

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During the eruption, Halemaʻumaʻu doubled its diameter to about half a mile, and its floor dropped more than 1640 feet.

What powered the explosions?

For years, the interpretation was that they were the result of steam explosions generated as groundwater encountered hot rock. This interpretation, suggested at the time, served well until the 2018 collapse of Halemaʻumaʻu and the adjacent caldera produced nothing comparable to the 1924 explosions.

Theoretical modeling indicates that months to years are required for the conduit wall to cool enough for groundwater to return after draining of a lava lake.

Is there any way to overcome this theoretical requirement? What role did magmatic gas — dissolved in magma and released explosively by sudden drop in pressure — play in 1924 or in 2018?

Ongoing work by USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory researchers on the 1924 ash is providing new information bearing on these questions. Next week’s “Volcano Watch” article will describe this research.

Finally, a sad, deeply personal, note.

Thomas Jaggar, esteemed chief of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, was in New York when the eruption started, not returning home to Hawaiʻi until May 28. In a private letter written 23 years later, he lamented “… 1924 was my responsibility, and my absence was a pity, the most fatal disappointment of my life.”

Thomas Jaggar standing amid ash and blocks of the May 1924 eruption, looking east-northeast toward Kīlauea Iki. Note the fresh cracks that opened as Halema‘uma‘u was widening during its collapse. (USGS photo)

At 7 p.m. May 14, join Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist emeritus Don Swanson and volunteer Ben Gaddis as they describe the 1924 explosive eruption of Kīlauea in an After Dark in the Park presentation at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Park entrance fees apply.

Click here for more information.

The program will be repeated May 20 and 21 at Lyman Museum in Hilo. Click here for additional information about those presentations.

Volcano Activity Updates

Kīlauea is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is at Advisory.

Unrest that began April 27 continues beneath the upper East Rift Zone and the summit caldera south of Halemaʻumaʻu. Up to 280 events, most magnitude-2 and smaller, have been detected per day during the past week between the south part of Kīlauea caldera and the intersection with Hilina Pali Road; depths remain concentrated between 1.2 and 3.1 miles beneath the surface.

Tiltmeters near Sand Hill and Uēkahuna bluff continued to record inflationary trends.

Kīlauea’s summit region is pressurized, and changes could occur quickly moving forward.

See the information statement published May 2 for background information.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert Level is at Normal.

Webcams show no signs of activity on Mauna Loa. Summit seismicity has remained at low levels throughout the past month.

Ground deformation indicates continuing slow inflation as magma replenishes the reservoir system following the 2022 eruption. SO2 emission rates are at background levels.

Six earthquakes were reported felt in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week:

  • A magnitude-3.3 earthquake 3 miles south of Volcano at a depth 1 mile at 9:26 a.m. May 7.
  • A magnitude-1.9 earthquake 3 miles south-southwest of Honoka‘a at at depth of 3 miles at 9:11 p.m. May 6.
  • A magnitude-2.5 earthquake 3 miles south-southwest of Volcano at depth of 1 mile at 4:16 p.m. May 2.
  • A magnitude-3.1 earthquake 3 miles south of Volcano at a depth of 0 miles at 4:07 p.m. May 2.
  • A magnitude-3 earthquake south of Volcano at a depth of 0 miles at 3:56 p.m. May 2.
  • A magnitude-2.9 earthquake 3 miles south of Volcano at a depth of 0 miles 3:48 p.m. May 2.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory continues to closely monitor Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.

Visit HVO’s website for past “Volcano Watch” articles, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa updates, photos, maps, recent earthquake information and more. Email questions to [email protected].

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