Kilauea’s Lava Lake

Kilauea's lava lake

Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano continues to erupt, sending magma flowing through multiple fissures. The U.S. Geological Survey has sounded a warning, however, that the volcano could erupt more explosively. Hot spot volcanoes like Hawaii’s generally have more basaltic lava, which has a lower viscosity than more silica-rich magmas like those seen on continental plates. That makes Hawaii’s volcanoes less prone to explosive detonations like the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption. With less viscous lava, there’s less likelihood of plugging a magma chamber and causing a deadly buildup of pressure from toxic gases.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no risk. In particular, officials are concerned by the rapid draining of a lava lake near Kilauea’s summit. As illustrated below, if the lava level drops below the water table, that increases the likelihood of steam forming in the underground chambers through which lava flows. The rapid drainage has destabilized the walls around the lava lake, causing frequent rockfalls into the chamber. If those were to plug part of the chamber and cause a steam buildup, then there could be an explosive eruption that releases the pressure. To be clear: even if this were to happen, it would be nothing like the explosiveness of Mt. St. Helens. But it would include violent expulsions of rock and widespread ash-fall. (Image credits: USGS, source; via Gizmodo)

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