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Explainer: Is Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano going to erupt again?

Aug. 26, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 26, 2021 at 9:10 p.m.

The crater of Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island is shown Aug. 13 in Hawaii National Park, Hawaii.  (Drew Downs)
The crater of Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island is shown Aug. 13 in Hawaii National Park, Hawaii. (Drew Downs)
By Audrey McAvoy Associated Press

HONOLULU – Scientists say the immediate potential for an eruption at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has declined after earthquakes and ground swelling subsided in the 24 hours leading up to Thursday morning. Earlier in the week, the quakes and changes to the ground surface prompted scientists to say the mountain could once again disgorge lava.

Here’s an overview of the latest developments at Kilauea:

What activity did scientists see?

Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on Monday noticed a surge of earthquakes and the ground swelling at the southern part of the crater at Kilauea’s summit. There are indications magma is shifting about a half-mile to a mile below the surface.

It’s not uncommon for Kilauea to have earthquakes, which could indicate rocks are moving. It’s also not unusual for the ground to swell as the heat from the sun and saturation from rain can cause the ground to expand and contract.

However, earthquakes and ground swelling at the same time indicated magma was on the move.

“We get a lot of earthquakes here, and we get a lot of deformation here. But the combination of the two makes us much more aware,” said Jefferson Chang, a geophysicist at the observatory, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Instruments detected hundreds of earthquakes from Monday through Wednesday, some striking as often as 25 times an hour. The strongest measured magnitude 3, with most coming in between magnitude 1 and 2. At these levels, the quakes are generally too small for people to notice. Chang said there haven’t been any reports of people feeling them.

Where did the activity happen?

It occurred at the summit of Kilauea volcano, an uninhabited area within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. This is about 200 miles southeast of Honolulu, which is on a different island called Oahu.

The site is miles from the nearest town. The park has closed off this part of the summit to the public since 2008.

Ben Hayes, the park’s interpretation and education program manager, said the park was preparing for a potential eruption, but he said there’s nothing to be alarmed about. “It’s a natural process at one of the world’s most active volcanoes,” he said.

Has this happened before?

Chang said scientists observed activity in the same part of the summit in 2015. That episode lasted three days, and the volcano didn’t erupt. Just like this time, the ground swelled. One difference is that there were more earthquakes then.

The last time Kilauea erupted at the southern part of its caldera or crater was in 1974.

What’s the current situation?

The earthquake swarm stopped about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday. The ground swelling has also subsided.

What does the alert level mean?

The observatory lowered Kilauea’s volcano alert level back down to advisory from watch on Thursday, after the earthquakes and ground swelling had subsided for 24 hours.

The new alert level means volcanic activity has decreased significantly, but scientists will continue to monitor Kilauea for more increases.

On Tuesday, the observatory had raised the alert level to watch, meaning Kilauea was showing heightened unrest with increased potential to erupt.

How often has Kilauea erupted?

Hawaiian chants and stories tell the stories of countless eruptions. In Hawaiian tradition, Kilauea is home to the volcano goddess Pele.

Kilauea has erupted 34 times since 1952. From 1983 to 2018, it erupted almost continuously, in some cases sending streams of lava that covered farms and homes. At the end of this decades-long eruption, Kilauea spewed lava from vents in a residential neighborhood on its eastern flank and destroyed more than 700 homes.

In December, Kilauea erupted at the crater, creating a lake with enough lava to fill 10 Hoover dams. That eruption ended in May.

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