Shake and Pour: Hawaii Lava Spills into Ocean

Kilauea lava meets the ocean
Lava from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii drops into the ocean. Steam plumes rise where the hot molten rock meets the sea. (Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

More than 30 small earthquakes, most too small to feel, shook the island of Hawaii in the past two weeks.

The tremors are signs of magma moving underground, feeding two ongoing eruptions at Kilauea volcano.

A sticky, slow-moving stream of lava called pahoehoe is crossing the coastal plain east of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, dripping into the ocean and creating a delta. The lava flow is 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) wide, according to a statement from the U.S Geological Survey's Hawaii Volcano Observatory. The delta has grown 165 feet (50 meters) in width since Nov. 24, the USGS reports.

Lava has repeatedly streamed into the ocean from Kilauea's east rift zone since the volcano began its current eruption on Jan. 3, 1983. The lava oozes forth from rift vents fed by its Pu'uO'o crater. The crater itself holds a small lava lake, and several small lava flows erupted onto the crater floor in the past week, the USGS said.

Large-scale map showing the mapped flow expansion on the coastal plain between November 30 and December 14 (in bright red). Light red represents the extent of the Peace Day flow from September 21, 2011, to November 30, 2012. Older flows are labeled with the years in which they were active. (Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

To the northwest, a lava lake at Halema'uma'u crater, at the top of Kilauea, continues to rise and fall. The lava lake "breathes" as magma levels change within the volcano, and it hit a high on Oct. 29 before receding. The summit lava lake is deep within a cylindrical vent with nearly vertical sides. The lake level surged to within 100 feet (31 meters) of the top of the vent at that high point.

Deep inside the volcano, the vent supplying Halema'uma'u crater is connected to the actively erupting Pu'uO'o crater, according to a USGS statement.

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Becky Oskin
Contributing Writer
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.