Logo link to homepage

Report on Kilauea (United States) — March 1999

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 24, no. 3 (March 1999)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Kilauea (United States) Large delta collapse on 8 March nearly claims victims

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1999. Report on Kilauea (United States) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 24:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199903-332010.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin


United States

19.421°N, 155.287°W; summit elev. 1222 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

During February and early March the eruption of Pu`u `O`o continued to deliver lava to the sea through the lava-tube system that developed on the coastal plain in August 1998 (figure 130). During this time no changes were observed at the Pu`u `O`o vent.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 130. Map showing three groups of Kilauea lava flows, including those as recent as 8 February 1999. A lava tube delivers lava to the ocean W of a prominent littoral cone (star) at the Kamokuna entry point. Courtesy of HVO.

Favorable wind conditions permitted a good view into the crater of Pu`u `O`o during late February. Lava was visible in the bottom of one pit as were several ledges around the edges of the pits; these ledges are remnants of the crater floor that collapsed into the pits as lava beneath Pu`u `O`o lowered during the past year. The most recent overflow of lava from the crater occurred in January 1998 (BGVN 22:12); the decline in crater activity since then is thought to be due to a change in an outlet in the local tube system located beneath the S flank of Pu`u `O`o. This outlet has moved downward as the lava tube has eroded through more than 20 m of loose tephra. As lava eroded the tephra, the lava level within the crater fell because the outlet is presumably hydraulically connected and in equilibrium.

On 8 March nearly all of the new land built since 11 December 1998 (BGVN 23:11 and 24:01) slid into the ocean. Several associated explosions hurled lava landward and the collapse removed part of the old sea cliff on the E and W sides of the active delta. Prior to the collapse, the ~10 hectare lava delta stood ~700 m long and extended as far as 200 m seaward from the previous shoreline's cliff face (figure 131). On the E side of the delta (foreground in figure 131), the former sea cliff was completely buried by lava, allowing easy though unauthorized access for visitors hoping for closer views of lava entering the sea. Landward of the W part of the delta, however, was a cliff standing 10-15 m tall, a vestige of a delta collapse on 11 December 1998 (BGVN 23:11). Warning signs posted by the National Park Service were at least 50 m landward of this cliff.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 131. W-looking aerial view taken on 4 March 1999 of the shore around the Kilauea's Kamokuna entry point. Area seaward of the white line fell into the sea on 8 March. Photograph by J. Kauahikaua; courtesy of HVO.

According to an anonymous eyewitness, seven people were on the delta when the 8 March collapse began. The first sign of a change in activity was a strong explosion that rocked the eyewitness where he lay on the ground above the buried cliff. An initial, energetic burst of lava from the edge of the delta threw spatter up to 70-80 m into the air (an estimate scaled from the people on the delta next to the explosion source). As large splatter clots fell around them, the seven retreated from the shoreline but became temporarily trapped by the sea cliff on the W side of the delta. The eyewitness used his flashlight to guide the endangered people to safety across to the E part of the delta.

Based on the eyewitness account, the collapse probably occurred between 0030 and 0200. The eyewitness left the area after the explosions began, and the delta was gone the next morning. The experience reinforced Park Service warnings that the ocean entry area remains extremely hazardous; visitors remain advised not to venture onto the active lava delta. After the collapse, lava began constructing a new delta into the sea (figure 133).

Figure (see Caption) Figure 132. Aerial view of Kilauea's shoreline near the Kamokuna entry point as seen on 11 March 1999, three days after the delta collapse. The black line indicates previous shoreline. Courtesy of HVO.
Figure (see Caption) Figure 133. Aerial view of Kilauea's shoreline as seen near the Kamokuna entry point on 18 March 1999 (10 days after the delta collapse) showing new delta growth. A black line indicates the previous shoreline. Courtesy of HVO.

When seawater and lava mixed within the confines of the lava tube, a steam explosion often resulted, sometimes blasting lava up through a hole in the roof of the tube. In figure 134 such a steam-driven explosion sent a dome-shaped sheet of lava, the skin of a bursting bubble, about 5 m into the air. Similar but larger explosions occurred intermittently for several days after the delta collapse on 8 March. As lava began rebuilding new land into the sea, water was apparently able to enter the developing lava-tube system within the delta.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 134. A series of still images from a video of a bursting lava bubble at Kilauea on 17 March. Video by J. Johnson, Ka'Io Productions; courtesy of HVO.

New tiltmeter. A new tiltmeter station was successfully installed in February near Pu`u `O`o in order better to monitor the middle east rift zone and the intermittent pauses in supply of magma to the vent. The new site design and improved electronics have yielded data 10 times better than those from older tiltmeter stations. This was the first of several new tiltmeters planned for Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Because the new instrument is about 5 m below the ground, the daily temperature effects on the rocks around the instrument are much less than for the older, shallower instruments, which were typically less than 1 m deep.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 135. View into the crater of Pu`u `O`o, looking toward the western side on 25 February. Courtesy HVO; photograph by J. Kauahikaua.

Geologic Background. Kilauea, which overlaps the E flank of the massive Mauna Loa shield volcano, has been Hawaii's most active volcano during historical time. Eruptions are prominent in Polynesian legends; written documentation extending back to only 1820 records frequent summit and flank lava flow eruptions that were interspersed with periods of long-term lava lake activity that lasted until 1924 at Halemaumau crater, within the summit caldera. The 3 x 5 km caldera was formed in several stages about 1500 years ago and during the 18th century; eruptions have also originated from the lengthy East and SW rift zones, which extend to the sea on both sides of the volcano. About 90% of the surface of the basaltic shield volcano is formed of lava flows less than about 1100 years old; 70% of the volcano's surface is younger than 600 years. A long-term eruption from the East rift zone that began in 1983 has produced lava flows covering more than 100 km2, destroying nearly 200 houses and adding new coastline to the island.

Information Contacts: Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), U.S. Geological Survey, PO Box 51, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI 96718, USA (URL: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/).