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40th Anniversary of "The Eruption" of Kilauea

Lava fountain in Kilauea Iki Crater, Kilauea Volcano, Hawai`i
Lava fountain, Kilauea Iki Crater
December 19, 1959


Kilauea Iki summit eruption:
Nov. 14 - Dec. 20, 1959 [ DETAILS ]

Many who witnessed the awesome and sometimes terrifying lava fountains of the Kilauea Iki Crater eruption in 1959 remember the activity as "the eruption" of Kilauea Volcano. Thousands gathered at the summit during the 5-week-long eruption to watch powerful fountains blast lava and pumice as high as 580 m (1,900 ft) into the sky and build Pu`u Pua`i (gushing hill), today one of Kilauea's most prominent landmarks.

During the eruption, 17 episodes generated huge lava fountains and sent vast outpourings of lava into Kilauea Iki Crater, eventually filling it to a depth of 126 m (414 ft). More astounding to many onlookers, however, was the tremendous volume of lava that flooded the lava lake and then drained back into the depths of Kilauea, sometimes at the same time as the fountaining and often at a greater rate. Out of the 102 million m3 that erupted into the lake, 63 million m3 flowed back down the vent!

The eruption also proved to be one of the most important milestones in the study of Hawaiian volcanism. Under the leadership of Dr. Jerry Eaton, scientists had only recently expanded the small network of seismometers with new instruments and installed a super-precise tiltmeter system around the caldera when Kilauea roared back to life.

For the first time these new instruments permitted scientists to (1) identify the depth at which magma originates from beneath the Big Island; (2) accurately locate thousands of tiny earthquakes in the summit area and along the east rift zone of Kilauea; and (3) correlate the rise and fall of Kilauea's caldera to the rise of magma into the volcano, eruption at the summit, and movement of magma from beneath the summit into the east rift zone. The basic model that Eaton and his colleagues subsequently developed to explain how Kilauea Volcano works, and the connection between its summit magma reservoir and rift zones, are still fundamental to the current monitoring program of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Stay tuned... the 1959 summit eruption was followed by an eruption on 13 January 1960 from the lower east rift zone next to the small community of Kapoho. On the 40th anniversary of this event, we'll provide a summary of the Kapoho eruption and its effects on the community.

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Updated: 4 April 2000 (SRB)