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Kilauea has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983. It may have stopped

CNN logo CNN 12/4/2018 By Jason Hanna, CNN

Lava that erupted from fissures in Kilauea's East Rift Zone destroyed parts of Hawaii's Leilani Estates community. Steam rises from the cracks in this November 7 photo, but there's been no eruption since September.

Lava that erupted from fissures in Kilauea's East Rift Zone destroyed parts of Hawaii's Leilani Estates community. Steam rises from the cracks in this November 7 photo, but there's been no eruption since September.
© USGS/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

When Hawaii's Kilauea volcano spewed lava this spring and summer, destroying hundreds of homes and sending thousands fleeing, it was just a more dramatic episode of a long-running series: It's been erupting nearly continuously for 35 years.

But that streak -- the longest current run in the United States -- may be at an end.

Kilauea has produced no lava on the surface of Hawaii's Big Island for three months -- neither at its summit, nor at its other vents, the US Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said Tuesday.

When volcanoes stop erupting magma for that long, the next eruption generally will happen in a different spot, marking a new eruptive event, said Tina Neal, the observatory's scientist in charge.

"The long-running eruptive activity that began in 1983 appears to have ended," Neal said in a phone interview.

But don't sleep on Kilauea's potential -- it's still active. Magma still is moving underground and the volcano is emitting gas. It will erupt again; it's just a matter of where and when, scientists say.

"We're in a pause of some sort. We just don't know whether the pause is going to end with what we had before, or whether it's going be something different," USGS research geologist Don Swanson said.

The 35-year streak

Kilauea's eruptive history spans tens of thousands of years, and the volcano has long inspired fascination and anxiety, as a tourist-drawing pillar of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and as a force that uprooted lives.

Kilauea's most recent eruption streak started in January 1983, when lava broke out of fissures east of the summit; the lava fountains would eventually form a cone now called Puu Oo.

Between then and 2016, lava flows covered about 144 square kilometers, added more than 440 acres in the Big Island's southeast, and destroyed 215 buildings, the USGS says.

Those eruptions came in more than 60 episodes, never with a three-month pause.

Kilauea's summit itself began a nearly continuous eruption in 2008, eventually creating a lava lake that could sometimes be seen from public viewing areas.

Then came May's eruption from fissures east of Puu Oo, destroying parts of the Leilani Estates community. By July, lava had covered more than 12 square miles and obliterated more than 700 homes.

But eruptions have stopped at all three sites. According to Neal:

• The Puu Oo vent hasn't erupted since April.

• The summit's lava lake drained away in early May.

• The fissures that erupted in May have been quiet since early September.

Why has it stopped erupting?

Neal cautions that eruptions could resume at any time. Even now, there are signs of magma refilling in Kilauea's East Rift Zone, though not near this year's vents.

Just two months ago, the USGS ranked Kilauea as the most threatening of the United States' 161 active and potentially active volcanoes. The ranking took historic activity into account as well as how exposed people and property would be to eruptions.

But why has Kilauea stopped erupting now?

"At its simplest, it just means there is not enough pressure in the system to push magma up and out," Neal said.

"That could be caused by reduction in supply from the source."

Or, she said, so much magma was evacuated this year, "there's just a lot of room in the volcano to refill before it erupts again."

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