Kilauea has become a different volcano. For 30 years, the summit was a passive participant in the seemingly ever-lasting Pu’u’O’o eruption. But nothing volcanic lasts forever, and 2018 was the year that proved this. A blockage near (or in) Pu’u’O’o caused the pressure in the rift to increase, the east rift gave way, and magma began to migrate eastward. Although no eruption happened at the summit, its subsequent collapse showed that the summit was an active contributor. We now have an entirely different volcano, and are lost as to what the future will bring.
But it can be hard to remember the past. Even the everlasting eruption had a beginning. Go back to before its beginning (and now we are talking 50 years ago), and you’ll discover a time when the summit erupted whenever it felt the need to release a bit of pressure. These were mini eruptions (compared to Puna 2018) but impressive nonetheless, and they happened in areas which now seem tranquil. One of these mini-events was the Christmas eruption of 1965. It is described in detail in an HVO report from where the following is taken.
With the 20:20 vision of hindsight, the event had really started in July with the onset of inflation inside Kilauea crater, just east of Halema’uma’u. (Remember Halema’uma’u?) Tremor began with little warning in the evening of 24 December, at 7:30pm. There was no time to prepare: the eruption itself began just two hours later. In those days, Kilauea could rival Hekla in speed of events, with barely an hour between the first felt earthquake and lava fountains appearing. At 9:30pm, a red glow showed that fountaining had begun, near Aloi crater, one of the craters along the Chain of Craters (it no loner exists). Observing the eruption gave some trouble to the Volcano Observatory observers. As HVO wrote ‘The observers rushed eastward along the Chain of Craters Road toward Aloi Crater, but were stopped about 500 feet west of the crater by dense clouds of sulfurous fumes and by ever-widening cracks in the road.‘ The observers could hear the eruption intensify, but not see it – until after 30 minutes a new crack opened and lava ejecta began to fall down less than 30 meters from where the observers were, convenient for the task at hand but not entirely safe. A retreat was in order, to ensure that the observers would not enter history as active participants.
The eruption declined after that, and by the time the observers finally managed to reach Aloi crater they could see the vents in the crater floor but the eruption there was nearly over. HVO wrote ‘The thin, continuous skin of lava that plastered the walls of the crater to a height of about 40 feet above its floor clearly indicated that much of the newly erupted lava had drained away before the observation parties were able to obtain a clear view of the crater‘. Kilauea had beaten the observers and managed to begin and finish an eruption unobserved, within 10 kilometers of the Observatory. The eruption continued in the forest to the east, but now rain and drizzle prevented observations. A final glow was seen at 4am, and the eruption ended at 4:10am on Christmas day. The whole event took place during the night and it was apparently not recorded in photos. The total lava output was less than 0.001 km3. This was a true mini-eruption, 20 times smaller than the one that happened in March 1965.
But the side effects were not minor. Cracks had opened over an 8 mile length, from the Kau desert to Kane Nui o Hamo. The Chain or Craters road was heavily damaged and became impassable. The width across the cracks was 1 meter. The cracking had occured during the eruption, and was largely complete by 4am. The summit had also been affected, and showed collapse, centred at the region where the inflation had been centred. The collapse was called ‘unprecedented’ at the time – in 2018 it would have been considered rather minor! But it was not only a collapse: tilt measurements showed that part of the south flank had moved seaward.
Earthquake activity had started two hours before the eruption, But it didn’t stop when the eruption ended. Unlike the eruption of 2018, the quaking continued to intensify, and remained high until 2pm on Christmas day. After that it decayed rapidly but it did not fully finish until December 31.
So what happened? Part of it was normal volcanic behaviour. Magma in the summit became over-pressured and took the easiest way out. That involved the rift zone. At that time, the path to the east rift zone was blocked, and eruptions happened in the rift close to the summit. Just like in 2018, the rift here must already have been close to failing. The intrusion pushed it over the edge, but instead of slipping in a single large earthquake, it gave way in a series of smaller shifts. The southern flank of the mountain shifted towards the sea. This caused the extensive cracking, which was seen over a much longer range than where the lava appeared. One may wonder whether the eruption caused the rift failure, or whether the rift failure opened up a magma path.
The eruption was brief and the rift failure had no immediate consequences. Previous eruptions had also been in the same rift region (slightly further east) and this fitted into a pattern. There were more minor eruptions in the following years, and a major eruption occurred in Halema’uma’u in 1967. But on May 24, 1969, the Mauna Ulu eruption began, which lasted for 2200 days (and also destroyed Aloi crater). This was the first phase of the Kilauea shield eruptions that over 50 years came to destroy so much of the southern coast. What caused this change in behaviour? Perhaps the opening of the rift on Christmas 1965 was part of the re-opening of the pathway, which had been closed since Kapoho 1960. And over the years, the re-opening continued opening eastward, from Aloi to Mauna Uu to Pu’u’O’o and onwards: this Christmas 53 years ago was a small step on the road to Leilani.
And also on the road to its end. The 2018 Leilani eruption ended with an earthquake in the area of the Koae fault of 1965. It seems to have closed the connection of Kilauea to the rift. The journey ended where it began – for now.
This all happened 53 years ago. Three years after this eruption, people would first fly around the moon. It was a time of hope when everything was young and anything seemed possible, when small steps for men became big steps for mankind. What happened to the hope? It is not only Kilauea that has changed. All around the world, society seems more divided than ever. The UK is particularly badly hit, and migrants (like me) perhaps feel less than fully welcome these days. Flying around the moon is a thing of the past: we can hardly get a rocket off the ground, whilst still using 1970’s technology. With all our progress, have we gone backwards? But volcanoes still erupt. They are a beacon of reality, and they are still able to surprise us. Volcanoes bring a different perspective.
The walls of the time
Memories are fading; our triumphs soon undone
The footsteps which today we make, tomorrow will be gone
But within us is the will to leave something that will last
a footprint on the river bank, before the current moves us past
as an outcast draws graffiti on a grey and wintry wall
as if to shout ‘I too have lived!’ beyond the empty hall
So I take what courage still remains, and in my feeble rage
I spray the word ‘Hope’ on the walls of this age.
Hearts are closed, unyielding, – with cold and empty eyes
Love surrenders where divisions erupt in fights
So much need and so much worry lies at our door
And when one child laughs, those that cry are ten times more
The heavens turn away, their oversight has failed
The burden on my shoulders in weakness is travailed
But in despair and anguish, my sadness provides the stage
to spray the word ‘Hope’ on the walls of this age.
Madness is king, and around rises the tide
A world is breaking down, and yet I dream of light
We are lost in the darkness, but hope remains the key
Humanity returning in a future I do not see
One day, when on my grave the grass in wind is blown
The words ‘never forgotten’ have long been overgrown
Perhaps between the lasting shouts of bitterness and hate
also the word ‘Hope’ is on the walls of that age
Reinhard Mey: Die Mauern Meine Zeit
From all of Us to all of You
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!