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January 2, 2000

A weekly feature provided by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Eruption Enters the 21st Century

Tomorrow, January 3, marks the 17th anniversary of the ongoing Pu`u `O`o - Kupaianaha eruption. Some readers are too young to remember the eruption in its glory days, when lava fountains as high as 460 m (1500 ft) burst from Pu`u `O`o every three to four weeks. At night, the fountains were a beacon visible over much of east Hawai`i, drawing people from their beds and out to their favorite viewing spot. The fountains were audible in Volcano and many other parts of Puna, a low rumble that sounded like a Volkswagen (the old kine) idling down the street.

Oldtimers will remember that the eruption's first item of business was to bury an area of proposed geothermal well sites, thus effectively ending the first round of controversy stirred up by geothermal development. `A`a flows fanned out through native rainforest and soon overran several houses in Royal Gardens subdivision, a harbinger of things to come.

From June 1983 through June 1986, the episodic high fountaining built a cinder-and-spatter cone 255 m high. Then, in the summer of 1986, the eruption shifted to a new site, 3 km (1.9 mi) downrift. The new vent, named Kupaianaha (meaning "mysterious" or "extraordinary") by the Kalapana kupuna, was the site of continuous eruption for the next 5.5 years. The eruption changed its style as well as its location, becoming less exuberant and steadier with age. Gone were the high lava fountains, replaced by steady effusion from a lava pond. Lava reached the ocean for the first time since early 1971, encased in lava tubes most of the way. Vog became an island issue, as the continuous activity produced a pall of sulphurous air that has been with us ever since.

The section of Highway 130 that linked the coastal section of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park with Pahoa was closed for good in early 1987. A few people who still lived west of the flows now had a daily commute of 100 miles if they worked in Hilo or Pahoa. The community of Kapa`ahu, the park's visitor center at Waha`ula, and finally the village of Kalapana were overrun and buried by lava. In May 1990, President Bush signed a federal disaster declaration for the Kalapana area that was unique in that past, present, and future victims of the eruption could all receive compensation. By early 1991, the output of Kupaianaha had begun a steady decline, as the magma dike linking Pu`u `O`o and Kupaianaha began to constrict. In February 1992, Kupaianaha stopped erupting, and 11 days later, a fissure opened on the west flank of Pu`u `O`o. This marked the beginning of an era of flank vent activity on the Pu`u `O`o cone that continues today.

The eruption has deviated from Pu`u `O`o only once since 1992, when a fissure in and near Napau Crater erupted for about 22 hours in January 1997. Most of the time during the last seven years, the lava has flowed to the shore within lava tubes and entered the ocean near the eastern boundary of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

As we enter the new century, the eruption shows no signs of slowing down. Currently, flows are pouring into the sea at the Lae`apuki site, 2 km (1.2 mi) from the end of Chain of Craters Road in the National Park. Lava viewing is excellent only a short walk from the end of the road. Conditions can change from day-to-day, so visit our website ( or call the park for the latest information and take heed of all warning signs.

Eruption Update

The ocean entry at Lae`apuki, which began two weeks ago, continues. The old bench is slowly growing seaward and extending westward along the coastline. Viewing has been good at night between the end of the Chain of Craters Road and Highcastle. The public is reminded that the ocean-entry area is extremely hazardous, with explosions accompanying unpredictable collapses of the new land. The steam clouds are highly acidic and laced with glass particles.

The flow that was slowly approaching the eastern boundary of the National Park near the Royal Gardens access road last week has stagnated.

In the last week, one earthquake, located at Kilauea's summit, was felt by residents of the Volcano area. The quake had a magnitude of 3.0 and a depth of 15.4 km (9.6 mi).

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Updated: 5 Jan 2000