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Geologist: The weird thing about the Hawaii eruption

When asked to draw an erupting volcano, most people draw a steep-sided cone with a big plume of smoke coming off the ...

Posted: May 9, 2018 11:13 AM
Updated: May 9, 2018 11:13 AM

When asked to draw an erupting volcano, most people draw a steep-sided cone with a big plume of smoke coming off the top. It will likely be a very scary picture, a "run for your life!" situation. This might be why the current eruption of Kilauea volcano, in Hawaii, has surprised many.

This eruption, while typical for Hawaii, doesn't look like that picture. Instead, here we are dealing with an "effusive fissure eruption" on the flank of a shield volcano. This means lava is oozing out of cracks in the ground, on the side of a volcano that is low and wide.

Running is not necessary -- a typical flow from this eruption moves a few feet per second, so walking is probably fine (but do get away!)

Lava -- molten rock flowing on the ground for everyone to see -- can be as beautiful as it is dangerous. There is a whole zoo of forms and shapes that lava can take. It can be thick and sticky, building large mounds like the dome that grew in the barren summit of Mount St. Helens between 2004 and 2008, and is still there.

In extreme cases, lava can be very runny and rush down a mountainside in just a few hours, as happened at Nyiragongo volcano in Africa in 2002. The surfaces of lava flows can be smooth and shiny sheets, or rough, painful to walk on, or rubble, or anything in between.

Understanding how lava will behave once it erupts is my focus and passion, and the current eruption is an opportunity to apply what we know to help a community handle an emerging disaster as it unfolds. While we cannot tell how long this eruption will last, we can do our best to predict where the lava will go. Then, once the eruption does end, it will be time to assess how and where the community can rebuild.

The lava from the current eruption at Kilauea has luckily not claimed any lives, but nonetheless has driven thousands of residents from their homes, destroyed houses and will severely disrupt an area that until last week was a peaceful, semirural subdivision.

The flows we have seen so far from the Leilani Estates fissures are of a type called a'a (pronounced ah-ah). They are thick and slow and covered in solid "clinker" pieces (cooling fragments) that float on top of the flow while the interior stays liquid and pushes forward.

Lava hardens and slows as it cools. It can also form channels as the sides cool first, building its own levees, while the interior stays liquid and flows forward. Sometimes the front of a flow cools, solidifies and stalls, and then liquid lava backs up behind it until enough pressure builds for a "breakout."

Breakouts can be dangerous because they are unpredictable, and can drastically change the direction of a flow. In addition, when lava flows come across buildings and other obstacles, they might stall, or find an easier path around the obstacle.

These obstacles and objects are frequently simply solidified lava flows from just a few hours earlier -- the surface of the ground is constantly changing as more lava arrives and makes its way around the now older, solidified flow. We have seen all of these processes happen at Leilani Estates. They have made predicting the paths of lava flows challenging to scientists and civil defense officials, but they are crucially important.

Besides predicting what paths the lava might take, predicting where the next fissure will open is critical. Scientists are making forecast maps to predict what would happen if a fissure of a certain size were to open at a certain location and spew lava at a certain rate. Then they use statistics to combine these simulations with the probability of such an event, and produce maps that guide Civil Defense and other responders.

So far the flows have not advanced very far from the fissures, so maps have not been challenged. But, in 2014-2015, flows from the Pu'u O'o crater, higher up along the Kilauea's East Rift Zone, advanced over 20 miles toward the town of Pahoa. The USGS maps predicted where the lava would go, but had to be updated constantly to account for breakouts, flow diversion by obstacles, and topographical changes to the flow's course.

Predicting lava flows also requires scientists to step away from their simulations. One key tool scientists use is thermal infrared cameras, similar to those used for night vision. Scientists use them to gauge the temperature of the lava, either standing near a flow or from a safe distance above it, in a helicopter or using a drone.

To the naked eye or to a regular camera, two lava flows might look the same --covered in gray clinker. But a thermal camera can tell which part of the flow is likely to break out, which is hotter and thus more fluid, and where the lava is headed. Click here to see a thermal map produced by the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory that shows the lava flows as of May 7th.

White or light gray areas are hotter than dark gray and black areas. Channels, breakouts, and a younger flow overtopping an older flow are all visible. You can see where the flow has covered streets in the neighborhood.

It's with maps like this one that we can see the step by step unfolding of events, documenting in incredible detail how a landscape, which until last week was as it has been for decades, is being changed forever.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 727764

Reported Deaths: 13397
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion995211738
Lake53461965
Allen40457675
St. Joseph35506550
Hamilton35489408
Elkhart28433441
Tippecanoe22359218
Vanderburgh22284396
Porter18668307
Johnson17905377
Hendricks17180315
Clark12930191
Madison12592339
Vigo12431246
Monroe11858170
LaPorte11821210
Delaware10648185
Howard9865216
Kosciusko9378117
Hancock8251140
Bartholomew8052155
Warrick7771155
Floyd7649177
Grant7027174
Wayne7026199
Boone6679101
Morgan6555139
Dubois6150117
Marshall6005111
Dearborn579277
Cass5788105
Henry5688103
Noble558883
Jackson500872
Shelby490296
Lawrence4505120
Harrison434772
Gibson434692
Clinton427053
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Steuben383857
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Fountain212046
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Pike133234
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Newton107234
Brown101641
Crawford99314
Benton98414
Martin88315
Warren81715
Switzerland7848
Union70810
Ohio56411
Unassigned0414

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1081518

Reported Deaths: 19428
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1256551400
Cuyahoga1117782115
Hamilton798901205
Montgomery513291014
Summit47080945
Lucas42049788
Butler38301584
Stark32242906
Lorain24958481
Warren24262298
Mahoning21511588
Lake20618369
Clermont19747238
Delaware18503133
Licking16410212
Fairfield16160199
Trumbull16019468
Medina15247264
Greene15043244
Clark13970299
Wood13065189
Portage12825203
Allen11626232
Richland11323199
Miami10661217
Muskingum8799133
Wayne8784211
Columbiana8766229
Pickaway8551121
Marion8514135
Tuscarawas8470244
Erie7871154
Hancock6906127
Ross6842155
Ashtabula6792170
Geauga6677148
Scioto6405101
Belmont5873167
Union570348
Lawrence5546102
Jefferson5521151
Huron5427119
Darke5347123
Sandusky5337120
Seneca5275121
Athens518858
Washington5153109
Auglaize489584
Mercer480385
Shelby468893
Knox4483110
Madison435561
Putnam4278100
Fulton421669
Ashland421489
Defiance419297
Crawford3970107
Brown393857
Logan381576
Preble379398
Clinton371263
Ottawa366679
Highland354662
Williams338575
Champaign331458
Guernsey315653
Jackson312151
Perry294850
Morrow284639
Fayette281550
Hardin270664
Henry268466
Coshocton264557
Holmes2593101
Van Wert243363
Adams237752
Pike237534
Gallia235349
Wyandot230855
Hocking215262
Carroll191247
Paulding172540
Meigs144740
Noble133337
Monroe132042
Morgan108323
Harrison107637
Vinton82815
Unassigned02
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Rain moves in overnight into Sunday morning and looks to hang around much of the day, likely forcing Mother's Day plans indoors
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