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Lava study helps scientists understand Kilauea’s eruptions

  • COURTESY HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY
    A close look at the opening of the northeast spatter cone in Puu Oo crater in Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii island reveals that though the lava pond has crusted over, fluid lava is likely present a short distance below the opening, as shown in this photo taken Monday. Delicate lava stalactites have formed just inside the rim.
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KAILUA-KONA >> A new study of magma from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano helps scientists understand why some eruptions are more explosive than others.

The research for the study was done by University of Hawaii professor Bruce Houghton, Hawaii Volcano Observatory’s Don Swanson and scientists from the University of Cambridge, West Hawaii Today reported. The study was recently published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Houghton and his colleagues examined lava from 25 Kilauea eruptions over the past 600 years.

Researchers found tiny portions of molten rock trapped in crystals in the cooled lava. The crystals can be looked at as tiny jars with sealed lids, according to Houghton.

"Some of the time, it’s as though the lid isn’t perfect," Houghton said. That condition allows some of the trapped gas in the magma to escape, he said.

The molten rock tries to reach conditions on the outside, causing some gases to leak, according to Houghton.

He said scientists analyzing the crystals found that the amount of gas leakage is proportional to the speed molten rock comes to the surface.

Incidents involving magma with more gas and a quicker surfacing are likelier to end in an explosive eruption, researchers learned.

"That gas that’s left powers the powerful explosions," Houghton said.

Houghton said scientists are trying to detect more accurately where magma is moving and how — one step in finding those quickly moving flows.

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