It had been over two years since Kīlauea on Hawai’i last erupted. For a volcano that had been erupting continuously for almost 35 years prior to that, two years of quiet is a long time. The summit Halema’uma’u Crater collapsed during the massive 2018 eruption at the Lower East Rift and the bottom of that pit had filled with a small lake. However, in a few fitful minutes early in the morning of December 21, that lake was change from a lake of water to a lake of lava.
Earlier last week, the scientists at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory had noted that the summit area was inflating and feeling numerous small earthquakes. This is something that hadn’t happened since the end of the 2018 eruption. These were all signs that magma was intruding into the summit area of the volcano. Although they couldn’t say that an eruption was going to happen, it was enough activity to at least let that thought creep into your head if you were montioring the volcano’s rumbling.
The plume from the December 21, 2020 eruption of Kīlauea. Credit: USGS/HVO.
December Eruption Begins
Sure enough, early in the morning on December 21, new fissures opened on the edges of the collapse pit in the Halema’uma’u Crater. At the eruption continued, lava cascaded from these openings into the small lake, evaporating it rapidly and eventually forming a new lava lake at the summit. Whatever magma had intruded at the summit now reached the surface in a spectacular fashion. It appears that a M4.4 earthquake earlier in the night may have been a harbinger of the eruption (it is always hard to tell which is the chicken and the egg in these early days).
Right now, HVO has a Red/Warning status for the volcano. With the abundant water in the crater and now lava, there is always the threat of explosions. However, so far we have just see an impressive steam plume and lava fountains in the summit crater. How long this will last is anyone’s guess at this point, but it marks the beginning of a new chapter of eruption at Kīlauea.
(And by the way, it is a great coincidence that this commenced on the winter solstice during the great Jupiter-Saturn conjunction … the universe is crazy that away.)