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Scientists debate whether Leilani Estates eruption is ‘new’

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Video by Andrew Gomes / Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Ken "Super Kenny" Peeler and Elisabeth "Ziji" Kerekgyarto reflect on being displaced from their home in Leilani Estates nearly four weeks after lava began crawling, and at times, flowing fast through their rural neighborhood near Pahoa on Hawaii island.
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Video by Andrew Gomes / Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Mjr. Jeff Hickman of the Hawaii National Guard gives an account of how sulfur dioxide is a variable danger to residents of Leilani Estates and anyone who is not prepared.
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Night view, Wednesday, of the lava eruption from fissure 8 from Kupono Street in Leilani Estates.

It’s not official yet, but U.S. Geological Survey scientists are seriously debating whether the Leilani Estates eruption that began May 3 should be declared a “new” eruption that is distinct from the Puu Oo eruption on the flank of Kilauea Volcano, which began in 1983.

According to USGS, the Puu Oo eruption ranks as the longest and most voluminous known outpouring of lava from Kilauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone in more than 500 years, and over the decades it covered the communities of Kapaahu, Royal Gardens and Kalapana.

However, the Leilani Estates event arguably has now effectively diverted magma from Puu Oo, and perhaps has ended that chapter of the long history of Kilauea Volcano.

“We have been talking about that, and we’re pretty much ready to call this a new eruption,” said Wendy Stovall, a USGS volcanologist. “Puu Oo doesn’t show any sign of activity at all.”

There is still a bit of deflation happening at Puu Oo — a sign that magma may be draining out of the area of the puu — “but it just doesn’t seem like magma will return to that area,” Stovall told reporters today.

“I can’t really call it official because I’m not the scientist-in-charge, but we’ve been discussing that, about what does this mean, is it a new eruption and are we going to have to call it something new,” she said.

The Puu Oo eruption began Jan. 3, 1983, when fissures opened on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, and in the months that followed the eruption became focused at a single vent. During the next three years, a series of lava fountains built a cone of cinder and lava spatter that was dubbed Puu Oo.

Lava from the Puu Oo eruption plowed through Kapaahu and first reached the ocean on Nov. 28, 1986, after covering a portion of Highway 130. That highway, which becomes Chain of Craters Road with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, is now being reopened as an evacuation route to help cope with the May 3 Leilani Estates eruption.

The most destructive period of the Puu Oo eruption was in the spring of 1990, when it entered Kalapana and buried the Kalapana Mauna Kea Congregational Church, a store and more than 100 homes in and around the Kalapana Gardens subdivision.

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