Kilauea's Eruption Has Made So Much Lava That It's Making New Land Along The Coast

The youngest land on Earth. USGS

This won’t come as much of a surprise to volcanologists, or anyone living on Hawaii’s Big Island, but it’s something that has nevertheless stirred something within the souls of the general public. So, here it is: Kilauea’s eruption is creating new land along its coastline, thanks to the hard work the volcano’s putting in to transform everything around it into a scarred, lunar-like landscape.

For some time now, lava has been entering the sea. This happens on a semi-regular basis on the island anyway. Remember, Kilauea has been erupting since 1983 in some form or another. Sometimes, if the lava lake overflows or a lava flow emerges through the subsurface, it can result in spectacular scenes of lava hoses pouring off cliffs and creating plumes of hydrochloric acid, glass-filled mayhem.

That mayhem, as it happens, is called laze. Normally not produced in quantities to cause concern, it’s now being manufactured along the coastline to an extent that the authorities are making sure no one goes near it.

This, of course, is thanks to the profuse nature of the current eruption, whose superheated, deeply derived source magma is now being effused from just a single fissure, number 8.

A new delta appears near Kapoho Bay. USGS

Lava fountaining, volcanic tornadoes, and cinder-cone building aside, Fissure 8 has been sending lava anastomosing nearly 13 kilometers (8 miles) down towards the coast. This has plowed its way through several neighborhoods, including Vacationland at Kapoho Bay. It is here that the lava is tumbling into the ocean and transforming into new land.

Magma/lava doesn’t always make new land when it hits the sea. Whether it’s a surface eruption or an underwater one, you need a high flow rate and a high amount of the molten gooey stuff to make something you could one day stand on, or else the waves will simply swallow them up.

The new land is appearing around Kapoho Bay. USGS

Kilauea's got nothing on other volcanoes, though. Back in 2013, an eruption 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Tokyo showed how to do it right.

Effusing so much lava from the depths, it created a new island that is still withstanding the forces of the ocean. Not only that, but it expanded to the size of hundreds of football fields in just a year or so, even managing to merge with a nearby island named Nishinoshima.

Bogoslof Island in the Alaskan Aleutian Island chain is another great example. Aside from being the first place that volcanologists have managed to successfully record volcanic thunder, it’s also known as the Jack-in-the-Box volcano, referring to its tendency to rise and sink beneath the waves depending on how eruptive it’s feeling.

This, of course, is how the Hawaiian island chain came to be in the first place. In fact, one day, its nearby underwater volcano, Loihi, will rise above the waves and form a brand-new island as the underlying mantle plume increasingly aligns with it. That’ll take 10,000 to 100,000 years though, so we’ll have to wait awhile to see that happen and watch Kilauea die.

Right now, though, Kilauea’s putting on the fireworks, and it’s managing to build new land that, so far, isn’t collapsing into the sea. “It’s a balance between creation and erosion,” Dr Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University, told IFLScience. “The creation part has to be greater than the destruction part.” 

Thermal map of the lava flow(s). USGS

“The last time significant land was created was during the destruction of Kalapana [a town on the island] in 1990. Kaimu Bay was filled in, which remains solid land today,” Dr Wendy Stovall, a senior volcanologist with the USGS, told IFLScience.

“It’s yet to be seen whether the land created at and beyond the site of Kapoho Bay will be stable,” she added, predicting that the seaward edge would fall away but the nearshore areas will remain intact.

Either way, “the new land created into, and seaward, from Kapoho Bay are now owned by the State of Hawaii.”

Yes, these flows are certainly dangerous, but it’s hard to deny the beauty of seeing the youngest land on Planet Earth being born before your very eyes. It’s all part of a vast, geological cycle – or, as Krippner puts it, this is nothing less than “the Earth recycling itself”.

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