These Freshly Erupted Hawaiian Lava Flows Are Nothing Short Of Spectacular


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Peeking inside a lava tube, an insulating feature that allows the internal lava to flow incredibly rapidly. USGS

The Hawaiian volcano Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, and although its basaltic lava flows can occasionally plow into settlements on the island, they are mostly harmless, beautiful blankets of fire that eventually plunge into the sea.

As reported by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a fresh lava flow emerging from the volcano is now expansive enough to force a closure of the public viewing areas, but a few lucky volcanologists have managed to sneak right up to it – either on foot or via helicopter – and document its mesmerizing passage towards the Pacific Ocean.


As of July 10, this lava flow is just 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from falling into the sea. Eruptions are continuing at both the summit of Kilauea and the East Rift Zone, a zone of active vents and fissures that ooze runny lava out onto the flanks of the immense volcano.

These lava flows, which tend to travel no faster than a slow walking pace at the surface, often reach temperatures up to 1,100°C (2,010°F) – and at night, they provide incredible opportunities for photographers. One such photographer, Kawiki Singson, stealthily hiked for several miles up to a lobe of this magnificent lava flow on July 9 to witness it consuming a forest as it headed towards the sea.

The USGS notes that Halema’uma’u, one of two of Kilauea’s lava lakes and one that is sometimes prone to explosive outbursts, is remaining at a roughly constant level, and appears not to be threatening to suddenly rise up and overflow. However, it is emitting up to 7,000 tonnes (7,720 tons) of sulfur dioxide every single day, which means that at the very least, this lava lake is incredibly pungent at the moment.

Fresh lava flowing as meandering channels. USGS


Lava engulfs a forest. kawika singson via YouTube

The fiery flow front of some a'a lava. USGS

The photographs show a mixture of two types of lava flow, pahoehoe and a’a. The former flow type is typified by smooth, ropey surfaces, and overall they take on a thin, elongate shape. The latter is far rougher and clinkery at the surface, and flows of this variant tend to be thicker and perhaps shorter. Essentially, slow-cooling, slow-moving lava tends to form pahoehoe, whereas the opposite forms a’a.

Kilauea itself is powered by a (somewhat wonky) mantle plume, an upwelling of superheated material from Earth’s mantle. As the tectonic plate Hawaii rests on drifts around, the hotspot remains stationary, and so the volcanic hotspot at the surface keeps moving, so in the future, Kilauea will “die” and another volcano will form and take over nearby.


The youngest volcanic feature is an underwater active volcano, or seamount, called Loihi, which will emerge from the sea somewhere between 10,000 to 100,000 years from now.

Pahoehoe lava making its way to the coast. The underlying material is likely to be far hotter than that seen at the surface. USGS

One of the lava flows, as seen from the air. Mick Kalber via Vimeo

A topographic map of Hawaii, with Loihi seamount circled in red. Semhur/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0


[H/T: Popular Science]


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