KILAUEA VOLCANO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed 49 days ago amid ongoing eruptions at Kilauea's summit. And in that time, the landscape of the park and at the summit have changed dramatically.
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologists estimate that Halemaumau Crater has doubled in size over the last two months and dropped a staggering 1,000 feet.
"This is a profound sequence of events here at Kilauea, unprecedented really in modern times," said Tina Neal, observatory scientist-in-charge.
Scientists say amid ongoing explosive eruptions at the summit, the amount of change that has taken place at Halemaumau is staggering. The crater's volume has been increasing at a rate of more than 10 million cubic meters every day.
"Even after only one week has passed, the scale of change is really breathtaking," said Kyle Anderson, U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist. "We're used to looking at changes on the order of centimeters over years. Here the scale of change is tens of feet per day in some cases."
Halemaumau Crater used to have the largest lava lake on the planet. Over the last two months it has drained away — fueling the ongoing eruptions in lower Puna that have destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands.
While scientists believe the magma that supplies Kilauea rises from the mantle in a seemingly unlimited supply to Halemaumau, they say what's happening right now is the summit reservoir is depleting faster than it can fill.
"Explosive eruptions at the summit and this really enormous enlargement of the crater, it's really tremendous," Anderson said. "We knew that they could happen, but I don't think most of us thought that they would happen in our lifetimes."
Scientist say while there has been profound loss, there has also been an unprecedented opportunity for a better understanding of volcanoes, including how to potentially predict future eruption events.
"As a scientist, it really is an inspirational event," Neal said.
"This is a once-in-a-career phenomena unfolding and we have so much to learn from this that will help future generations and other volcanology groups around the world deal with similar situations. The challenge of trying to figure out what is going on and perhaps more importantly figure out what's going to happen is epic and this is in large part what volcanologists are born to do."
Meanwhile, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed amid earthquakes and nearly daily collapse explosions at the summit.
"It doesn't look like we have an end anywhere in sight. Although we hope that nothing lasts forever and we can reopen in the near future," said Jessica Ferracane, of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
A layer of ash covers the otherwise deserted Halemaumau Overlook parking lot, which would typically be packed with cars and visitors. Inside, Jaggar Museum itself is also empty after park officials cleared out the artwork and relocated it to a more secure place.
"The underlying theme is uncertainty," said John Broward, chief ranger at the park and incident commander. "We don't know where the next earth crack is going to open up. We don't know what effect that's going to have on our park or our park visitors."
While the Kahuku unit of the park remains open five days a week (Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), officials say the Kilauea area sustains too much damage on a daily basis for visitors at this time.
"We don't take closing Hawaii Volcanoes National Park lightly at all," Ferracane said. "These are tough decisions that are made in consultation with scientists with our management team and we know the impact on the local community — but it's truly not a safe place to stay up here."
Officials estimate the closure of the park, which is entering now its seventh week, has caused an impact of about $20 million in losses to the economy.