The Geography of Hawaii’s Volcanic Activity

The eruption of Kilauea volcano is causing panic and damaging summer tourism, but how far-spread is the actual damage?


Since May 3, the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island has been coughing up red-hot chunks of magma, sputtering ash, and leaking acrid sulfur dioxide through fissures in the Earth’s crust, threatening nearby residents. In the lower Pahoa area, more than 2,000 locals have evacuated from the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens neighborhoods, in which at least 26 homes have been destroyed .

The current bout of eruptive activity began April 30 with the partial collapse of Kilauea’s central Pu’u O’o crater, NPR reports. The collapse sent magma leaking underground southeast toward the Puna District, allowing pressure to build and breaking up rock and sediment formations. Rumbling earthquakes followed. Days later, Kilauea erupted, oozing lava from freshly opened chasms in residential neighborhoods 25 miles away from normal volcanic activity.

Volcanoes explode when a lava lake inside a crater dips below the water table, allowing cold water to enter the hot crater and creating steam. Rocks and cooled magma from the volcano regularly fall into the crater, capping it and building pressure.

Kilauea’s primary crater—the one at its summit—is called Halema’uma’u. Since April, the lava lake bubbling in Halema’uma’u’s belly has been receding into its magma column, National Geographic reports, on its way either to other storage pockets within the volcano or to the newly opened fissures in the East Rift Zone. The U.S. Geological Survey issued a warning May 9 that the magma column would likely dip below the groundwater level, raising the potential for further eruptions. On May 16, the pressure proved too much for the Halema’uma’u rock cap. Kilauea erupted again, this time from its summit for the first time since 1924, billowing ash and steam 30,000 feet into the sky. Despite its height, the ash cloud was not particularly voluminous, and only spread in trace amounts within 20 miles of the summit. Wednesday’s eruption will temporarily relieve pressure, but more eruptions are predicted to follow in the coming weeks.

While volcanoes are a major attraction for Hawaii’s tourism industry, the Kilauea eruption and nearby fissures are prompting fearful travelers to cancel their visits to Hawaii altogether. Summer tourism has taken a significant hit on parts of Big Island unaffected by the volcanic activity, and even on completely different Hawaiian islands.

Cancellation costs from May through July so far total a loss of $5 million in revenue for Big Island, TIME reports, while hotel and activity reservations have dropped 50 percent. At least three cruise ships from Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line have cancelled stops at ports in Hilo and Kona.

Despite the dramatic media coverage and alarming imagery of the Kilauea eruption, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority is encouraging would-be visitors to study the island’s geography to understand that the volcanic activity is contained and controlled, and does not pose a risk outside of a small, remote area on Big Island’s east side. Damage so far has been limited to roughly 10 square miles—Big Island’s total land mass is more than 4,000 square miles.

The closest and most popular resort areas, in Kona and the western Kohala Coast, are more than 100 miles from the lava flow and 80 miles from the volcano. All flights into Kona and Hilo are operating normally. Other Hawaiian islands, including Oahu, Maui, and Kauai, have not been affected.

According to the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, “There is absolutely no reason for visitors planning a trip to the Hawaiian Islands to change or alter their leisure or business travel plans.”

Headline Image: Lava spatters at the edge of Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Taken April 22, 2018. Photo Credit: USGS. 

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