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Lava lakes at Kilauea seethe and bubble (and the UK media gets in a muddle) 10 June 2011

Posted by admin in activity reports, Hawaii, Kilauea, United States.

Halema'uma'u Crater lava lake, 2 June 2011: screen capture from Hawaiian Volcano Observatory video (USGS/HVO)

There are currently two active lava lakes at Kilauea volcano on Hawaii, one at the summit in Halema’uma’u Crater and one on the floor of Pu’u O’o Crater in the East Rift Zone of the volcano, about 25 km ESE of the summit. The Halema’uma’u lava lake has been particularly active since late May, with a rather spectacular lava flow feeding directly into the lake. This makes for some absolutely stunning images – when effusive basaltic volcanoes are in this mood, they can rival in their own way the visual drama of their more explosive silicic cousins. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory have released a video taken on 1 June of the activity at the Halema’uma’u lava lake: the screen captures above and below come from this video (click here for the HVO page hosting the video, or here for a direct link to the .mov file).

Halema'uma'u Crater lava lake, 2 June 2011: screen capture from Hawaiian Volcano Observatory video (USGS/HVO)

Halema'uma'u Crater lava lake, 2 June 2011: screen capture from Hawaiian Volcano Observatory video (USGS/HVO)

Lava lakes are not unknown at Kilauea: a celebrated one existed for decades at the summit of the volcano, a favourite of visiting volcano artists, until it vanished during the eruption of 1924. The lava lake re-emerged at Halema’uma’u in September 2008 and has been there ever since, at varying levels and with periods of replenishment and circulation alternating with periods in which the lake has been static and crusted over. The Halema’uma’u lava lake has been formed by lava feeding into an existing crater and and forming a pond within it; the lake at Pu’u O’o is of a different type known as a perched lava lake or lava pond, where lava has been erupted from a vent or fissure and has become contained not by an existing topographic feature but within walls created by the cooling of its own margins.

The experts at HVO are watching the lava lakes carefully, as they watch every aspect of Kilauea’s behaviour. The latest HVO status update for Kilauea (9 June 2011) reports that ‘Lava is only present within Pu’u’O’o crater (middle east rift zone) and the vent inset within the east wall and floor of the summit’s Halema’uma’u Crater. The summit lava lake level rose slightly. In the east rift zone, sources within Pu’u’O’o crater fed a lava lake perched in the middle of the crater floor whose level remained high with few overflows’. Although the level of the Halema’uma’u lava lake ‘rose slightly’ HVO describes the lake’s behaviour as ‘otherwise stable’. On 8 June the lake’s level dropped slightly as deflation was recorded at the summit, while on 9 June some inflation was registered. All of this is entirely normal and nothing to worry about: Kilauea inflates and deflates, lava lake levels rise and fall, and sometimes lava overflows the edges. The HVO routinely lists the possibility that ‘near-vent areas could erupt or collapse without warning’ as one of the volcanic hazards present at Kilauea.

It’s important to stress the normality of all this because certain parts of the media, specifically of the UK media, have got themselves a bit worked up about Kilauea’s lava lakes. BBC News is reporting ‘fears over lava levels at Hawaii volcano’, while Sky News is claiming that ‘there are concerns the lava level could overflow the rim’. There is also some confusion on Sky’s part between the Halema’uma’u lava lake and that at Pu’u’O’o. The video shows Halema’uma’u, but the Sky news article says that the lava lake ‘has been reported to resemble an above-ground swimming pool’, which is a description taken straight from the HVO page on Pu’u’O’o and which clearly does not remotely apply to the Halema’uma’u Crater lava lake. The Sky report also describes the lava flow feeding the lake as, of all things, a ‘pyroclastic flow’ (as did the commentary on the BBC video, until they cut that part out). The Daily Telegraph has exactly the same nonsense, presumably because they copied it without reading it from exactly the same source. And all these big media outlets use a video shot more than a week ago to suggest that there is some imminent danger, with alarmed scientists watching with anxiety as the lava lakes (filled to the brim by scary pyroclastic flows) threaten to overflow.

It’s notable that the Hawaiian media has dealt with this in a much more low-key, responsible and accurate way. Here’s what the Honolulu Star-Advertiser says in its report of 7 June:

The lava lake is in a vent below the surface of the Halemaumau crater floor. The vent opened in 2008. Another lava lake is visible in Pu’u ‘O’o crater in the east rift zone. That lava lake is in the center of the crater floor. The pool of lava is being held in place by an elevated rim of cooled lava about six to 10 feet higher than the crater floor and 130 feet below the eastern crater rim. The lava occasionally overflows the rim.

The report at Hawaii Magazine is similarly straightforward and well-informed, with descriptions, dimensions and locations. KITV, similarly, sticks to the facts in showcasing the HVO video. In Hawaii you would expect local news outlets to know their volcanoes and their volcanology, and indeed they do. But that does not mean that elementary errors of fact and distorted reporting are acceptable from sources based elsewhere. What possible excuse can there be for vast news organizations with huge resources such as the BBC, Sky and the Telegraph putting out nonsense about volcanoes overflowing and lava lakes being fed by pyroclastic flows? It’s easy to check your facts if you can be bothered to do it.

Caught on cam: Kilauea lava lake roiling – KITV, 6 June 2011
New Kilauea video shows vent feeding lava lakeHonolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 June 2011
Scientists monitoring lava flow cascading deep within Kilauea crater – Hawaii Magazine, 7 June 2011
Fears over lava levels at Hawaii volcano – BBC News, 10 June 2011
Hawaii volcano lava lake growing at Halema’uma’u vent as orange molten rock stream gathers – Sky News, 10 June 2011
Molten rock forms lava lake in HawaiiDaily Telegraph, 10 June 2011

Global Volcanism Program: Kilauea – summary information for Kilauea (1302-01-)
USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory – main page for the HVO
HVO Kilauea Status Page – the latest activity reports for Kilauea

The Volcanism Blog


1. Anonymouse - 10 June 2011

“…presumably because they copied it without reading it from exactly the same source.”

UK media outlets are frequently shameful in this respect, leading to jokes on the lines of “the Daily Mail science editor said that? I’m shocked! How long have they had one of those?!”.

http://churnalism.com/ is a wonderful resource.

Epic images, still. :-)

2. Perry - 10 June 2011

The MSM, especially in the UK , are a bunch of pointless ——–s.
Personally, I’d like to load these useless hacks onto C130s, fly them to Kilauea and push them out of the loading bays into Pu`u `O`o and Halema`uma`u, in order to encourage much more accurate reporting.

This would punish them where they sinned & should give us an opportunity to discover whether human sacrifices really would appease Pele. Kersplatt!

3. admin - 10 June 2011

Wow, Perry, that’s kind of dark.

4. Geology Buff - 11 June 2011

Fooey, why didn’t I come here first? I just spotted the BBC headline about “fears” of lava overflowing at Halema’uma’u and stupidly clicked on it. Is it my imagination, or is the last frame a still shot of Pu’u O’o?

I missed the pyroclastic flow malarky.

Goodness gracious, this is like that KCAL9 news reporter (Los Angeles’ main news station) grilling a geologist as if she were doing some kind of cover-up for not explaining the very dangerous and alarming 2.0 earthquakes showing up on the USC seismograph map.

I am desperately trying to get news to some family members stuck in Bariloche. I do not think I had better rely on anything the BBC says. Their latest news is that volcanic activity at Puyehue is increasing, while the actual reports from Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería says it’s decreasing slightly, for example.

5. Perry - 11 June 2011

Harsh, but justified. I get my information from science blogs like yours. Erik’s, http://wattsupwiththat.com/, http://stevengoddard.wordpress.com/ and http://bishophill.squarespace.com/

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