Kilauea, Hawaii, USA: Wow!

Infamous Fissure #8!

I’ve been semi-obsessed the last few weeks by the Kīlauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Back in early May there was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake in the volcanic system, and then things got interesting (in the curse sense). By late May a fissure in the east rift zone was emitting lava at a rate (100 cubic meters per second) not recorded in our history of recording things like that.

All that lava came from a reservoir — the magma chamber — in the volcano, so Kīlauea began experiencing “collapse events” as the summit subsided into the space left by the departed magma. These collapse events resulted in magnitude 5.3 (or so) earthquakes roughly every 32 hours (plus or minus a lot).

And a bunch of us interested parties were online chatting, watching, and waiting for the next collapse event!

Let me back up just a little bit and explain some terms for those new to this:

Magma: Hot molten rock under the ground.

Lava: Hot molten rock on the ground. Or cold rock that used to be molten. (And two basic types of lava: Pāhoehoe and A‘ā.)

Volcano versus Fissure: A volcano system has a primary volcano that forms a mountain and experiences massive eruptions, but often also has surrounding fissures fed by magma channels connected to the volcano.

The distinction is entirely based on how shallow is the plumbing that connects outlets. Very shallow connections are part of the same system. Only very deep connections (more than 30-40 km) result in separate volcanoes.

Earthquakes (in this case caused by volcanic action and magma flow) are characterized by their time, location (longitude, latitude, and depth), and — crucially — their magnitude.

The capital “M” signifies this: M6.9, for example (which is a big one).

The USGS. The United States Geological Survey. One of our nation’s more awesome resources, not to mention collection of outstanding and dedicated men and women. Relevant here, the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program.

At USGS Earthquakes you can make custom views of “eq” events! Kīlauea is the cluster of orange dots in center. Pu‘u Ō‘ō is to the east and is emitting a column of smoke. Fissure 8 is in upper right corner (not visible in this satellite photo). Mauna Loa is to the left.

I couldn’t do them justice trying to even just list the high points of all they have to offer. I can only insist you visit them. Look around. Explore and be amazed.

And, bonus, they are ad-free! Science at its very finest!

What Happened in Hawai‘i?

Since 1983, a big volcanic vent, named Pu‘u Ō‘ō, has been intermittently erupting. The vent is located in Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone (ERZ) and, being fed by the magma reservoir, is part of Kīlauea.

The USGS has a great chronology (PDF) (continuously updated!) you can read for details, but at the end of last April, things began to change…

  • April 30: Pu‘u Ō‘ō crater collapses, local seismicity increases.
  • May 2: First fissures in ground appear in Leilani Estates.
  • May 4: More fissures open, lava begins to flow, M6.9 EQ, plus three others: M5.0, M5.4, and M5.3.
  • During May: More fissure open, lots of lava flows, homes and property lost or badly damaged.
  • Late May: Fissure #8 is the only one that remains, but it’s huge! Lava flows east towards Kapoho crater and then south to the sea. Kīlauea begins to experience regular M5.3 (or so) collapse events.
  • June and July: Fissure #8 continues to flow; Kīlauea continues to experience regular collapse events.
  • Early August: Things stop. Or pause. We’re waiting.

Since this all began, fissure #8 has erupted roughly 0.8 cubic kilometers of lava. It has covered 13.6 square miles (35.3 sq km), and lava that flowed into the ocean built up over 800 acres of new land.

Southeast part of Puna, Hawaii, which has been devastated by fissure lava flows. This Aug 6 map from USGS shows (in pink) where lava spread. Red indicates fresh flow. Fissure #8 marked by “8” lower left.

The big question now is what happens next. Is this an end? Or is it just a pause? Impossible to say.

My Obsession

Poking around YouTube I saw an interesting video about lava, and that led to another, and another. Once YT realized I was interested, it began feeding me more and more such videos.

I began to realize that, despite its ancient history with volcanoes, this particular event was a pretty big deal. My curiosity shifted from idle to avid (nice to know it still can).

And then YT handed me this Live channel:

The YouTube Kilauea Live feed from the VolcanoYT channel. Upper left, a view of fissure #8. Upper right is a long view of Kīlauea with a closer view middle right beneath. The blue bands middle left are spectrographs from various sensors in the area, with a longer single-sensor seismograph along the bottom. Lower right is a thermal camera view of the Kīlauea crater. This is a screenshot of a collapse event. Note solid color bands on instruments!

Which isn’t just live, but has an online chat (not shown) so you can interact with others who are also staring at the screen.

Which turns out to be hugely addictive!

It’s a strong double-dose of asynchronous reward. Firstly, waiting for the next collapse event, secondly, the social chat aspect (“who will reply to me!?”). I found — for a number of reasons — that I had to withdraw after a few weeks.

But it was fun, and it was a gateway to exploring a lot more about Kīlauea than I might ever have.

It also triggered some all-night coding sessions inspired by my desire to explore the quake data from USGS. (And since my ennui is at a lifetime high, it’s nice to know something can still interest me that much.)

It started with this chart:

Which I first made by manually recording times between collapses just to see how the data looked. But then I remembered how easy it was to download weather data from NOAA and thought I might find EQ data at USGS.

Yep. It’s called the USGS Earthquake Catalog, and… it’s pretty awesome!

Turns out to be easy to, for example, specify all the EQs in the area for a given month and download a CSV file containing lots of data about them.

Next, import them into an SQL database along with data from other months. This allows queries to be run: “Gimme all the EQs from June that were greater than M5.0,” for example:

SELECT * FROM “earthquakes” WHERE (‘2018-05’ < “ts”) AND (“ts” < ‘2018-06’) AND (5.0 < “mag”) ORDER BY “ts”

Or whatever. And that leads to nice tables and charts. Especially charts:

Histogram of EQ depths. (Note vertical log scale.)


Plot of EQ depths over time. Color encodes magnitudes.

I love charts! I love seeing data.

And then I got to thinking about the three-dimensional nature of earthquakes. They are located by longitude (“X”) and latitude (“Y”), but also by depth (“Z”), which made me want to see a three dimensional plot.

3D rendering of EQs. The big grey patch is Hawai‘i, and Kīlauea is the larger grey cone. Pu‘u Ō‘ō is the smaller one. Fissure #8 is a small red cylinder to the east (rear right). Colored dots encode EQ magnitudes. Grid marks off a 0.5 degree square every 5 km depth.

Which is still something of a work in progress. But it’s coming along. The ultimate goal is an animated fly by I can post to YouTube (I’ve already posted a couple of crude first attempts).

While Hawai‘i waits for what’s next, I wait to see how long I’ll pursue this. I got really into the weather stuff for a while, but it didn’t seem to take. (Unlike baseball, for example, which I still love and pursue.)

I can sort of feel my interest begin to wane. I withdrew from the chat mainly to avoid addiction, but if I’m honest, there’s some personal stuff, too. The short version is that I didn’t seem to fit in very well.

Which is fine, but what added to it is how the more technical people in the group largely ignored me and my contributions. And I don’t know why!

Is my stuff so remedial and childlike it’s beneath them? Did I offend someone? I dunno. I’m used to getting along really well with technical people — fellow travelers I’m delighted to meet. I don’t understand the cold shoulders.

It has kind of dampened my enthusiasm. I’ve retreated to my corner to silently play with my data and make my charts and 3D models. It amuses and interests me if no one else.

And it has been fun! Two all-nighters coding, which I haven’t done in ages. In a world that increasingly looks all grey to me, it’s nice to see some color.

It all even inspired poetry…

There once was a mountain that plumed.
The goddess within it, she fumed.
With watchers around,
I’ll stay in the ground!
And all o’ their waiting is doomed!

Kīlauea summit. That sunken pit on the right is all from subsidence into the (emptying!) magma chamber below. Most of that area was flat before. See USGS for more!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

3 responses to “Kilauea, Hawaii, USA: Wow!

  • mwlange

    Online chats can be quite addictive, though people might not have responded for any number of reasons. It is always nice to be noticed, which is why I think chats are a feature of many different live stream services like YouTube and Twitch. Imagine watching Westworld with everyone else at the same time, and discovering what you had to say got everyone’s attention at a relevant moment.

    The interesting thing about Kilauea to me is how fortunate people are to have a volcano doing this in a place where it can be documented easily. I wonder if any other events similar to Kilauea have happened elsewhere in less habitable parts of the world.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, chats can be a lot of fun, and quite a step up from what we had in the 1970s and 1980s. For a while I spent too much time — a few years! — with an online group who “met” to watch MN Twins games. I left in part because the trolls got too bad (no moderator), but mainly because I realized I was chatting so much I wasn’t focused on the game.

      And Westworld? Heh,… I take the phone off the hook, am nowhere near my laptop or iPad, and I sit very close to the TV… glued for the episode! 😀 But afterwards, then it’s time for beers and talk (when my buddy comes over Wednesday nights). And there are some very good YouTube channels doing Westworld analysis. I really enjoyed those!

      Kīlauea (and all the Hawaiian volcanoes) come from that (mysterious, unexplained) magma “plume” rising up from the mantle smack dab in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Look at an ocean bottom map and see the whole chain extending to Alaska.

      That’s not common. Most volcanoes are on the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Plate, and are caused by subduction. So, yeah, Hawaii is a fantastic laboratory for volcano study, absolutely! (Interestingly complicated by native Hawaiian cultural customs. They can’t drill instruments into the caldera, for example; sacred to Pele!

      And volcanoes, of which there are many world-wide, are studied. Spend some time at the USGS Volcano Hazards Program web site! It’ll blow your mind! There are definitely others going on around the world right now!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    So far, it remains quiet in Hawaii, and the lava flow has stopped. But it takes months to call and end for sure. (And what really happens, is that after a few months, a resume is usually considered a new eruption.)

    In other news, it’s given me time to work on my 3D model…

    It’s finally starting to look what I’ve been imagining in my head.

And what do you think?

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