Kilauea's ongoing eruptions are rewriting its past and helping scientists better predict its future

Kilauea's ongoing eruptions are rewriting its past and helping scientists better predict its future

KILAUEA VOLCANO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Amid ongoing eruptions of Kilauea on the Big Island, scientists are changing their assumptions about the volcano's behavior — and their conclusions about what happened at the summit nearly a century ago.

When explosive eruptions at Kilauea's summit started in early May, experts looked toward activity in 1924 to explain what was happening.

Back then, a lava lake was dropping, draining from the summit. When the lava fell past the water table, water filled the space once occupied by lava.

The water hit hot rock and triggered what scientists later believed was two weeks of steam-driven explosions.

Scientists saw this happening again in May.

But this time, they had the technology to notice something else associated with the eruptions: They discovered gas from magma had an association with explosions, according to Mike Poland, a geophysicist with U.S. Geological Survey.

"We couldn't measure gas coming out of volcano in 1924," Poland said. "So now we're looking at it through different eyes, through different lenses."

And those different lenses, or new technology, are able to measure the amount of gas in volcanic plumes.

Poland said that the gas is at least associated with some volcanic explosions, but scientists are still trying to determine to what extent. He said it's possible that the gases could have also played apart in the explosions seen in 1924.

"I think our cartoon understanding of how that happened in 1924 may have been a little oversimplified," said Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Neal said that there is even evidence that the gases could have played even a bigger role than steam back in 1924.

So scientists are hopeful that breakthroughs, such as the perspective shift regarding the gases, will help them understand more about past eruptions — and future activity, too.

And that's exactly what a team of scientists are hoping to achieve.

Volcanologists Bruce Houghton with UH Manoa and Rebecca Carey with the University of Tasmania received a $471,897 grant from the National Science Foundation to partner with scientists at USGS and HVO to better understand how Kilauea operates.

"The motivation of this research is to understand what drives changes in the style and intensity of mild explosive eruptions," said Houghton's doctoral student Brett Walker.

"There is both a public desire for better knowledge of the volcano's behavior and a need for improved forecasting of the likely course and footprint of all future eruptions to keep people safe."

The grant was given in hopes of understanding the behaviors of both Hawaiian and Strombolian volcanoes and basaltic explosive eruptions.

Walker said that having a better understanding of volcanic activity will help scientists look for changes and signs that could give extra warning to volcanic behavior.

"We are adding another chapter, and building upon, Kilauea's richly documented eruptive history," Walker said. "By understanding what has happened in the past, we get a better understanding of what the volcano is capable of and thus, what can happen in the future."

Copyright 2018 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.