Drastic changes at summit reshape future of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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Thursday marked seven weeks to the day that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been shut down for the safety of visitors and staff due to explosive volcanic activity at Halemaumau Crater.

Park officials allowed the media to tour the area briefly Thursday, and offered an update on the park.

“We started closing sections of the park around May 5,” said John Broward, chief ranger, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “As it became more and more clear that this seismic activity is only increasing and continuing, and also with the threat of ash and high levels of sulfur dioxide and other volcanic gases, we decided it was in the best interest of the visitors to close the entire park.”

The continuous stream of visitors came to an abrupt halt on May 10, one week after the current eruption broke out in Leilani Estates, miles away in  the lower East Rift Zone.

For scientists who work there, the recent events are bittersweet.

“I have mixed emotions about it,” said Tina Neal, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist-in-charge. “As a scientist, it really is an inspirational event. This is a once-in-a-career phenomena unfolding, and we have so much to learn from this that will help future generations and other volcanology groups around the world deal with similar situations. So it’s a real mixture of sadness and loss.”

Safety concerns will keep much of the park closed indefinitely. 

Scientists used to monitor daily changes in Haleumaumau Crater by the millimeter. Now, they say, the landscape is changing by tens of millions of cubic yards per day as the earth continues to move and collapse.

“Because the rate of magma in the reservoir is so much greater than the rate at which magma is supplied to that reservoir, the summit magma reservoir is deflating. You can think of that a bit like air being let out of a balloon. That’s causing subsidence, cracking, and deformation across a widening region of Kilauaea caldera,” explained Kyle Anderson, U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist.

All that activity continues to trigger large earthquakes in the region. More than 15,000 earthquakes were recorded over the past eight weeks.

“We’re concerned not so much about a catastrophic event, where there’s a major earthquake and we have a huge collapse or anything like that. It’s still something we want to keep as a concern, but it’s not our primary concern,” Broward said. “Just little damage that we get from the roads and from buildings and things like that, if we had visitors in a particular building, there’s an earthquake and part of the roof collapses or the floor cracks or something like that and someone gets hurt that way, so worried about smaller scale things like that.”

Near the now-closed Jaggar Museum, we found piles of ash up to eight inches deep in some areas.

“We’re also concerned about the roads,” Broward added. “As you might have seen coming in here, there’s quite a few cracks on the road, and some of them are getting larger on the main highway. Hawaii Department of Transportation is doing a really good job of trying to keep up with those cracks, but there’s a lot of side roads and things like that within the park that we’re concerned about if we did allow visitors to go down those roads, where the crack could open up and potentially a car could get swallowed up or perhaps just being able to access that area.

“Kind of the other underlying theme is uncertainty. We don’t know when the next earth crack will open up. We don’t know what effect that’s going to have on our park or park visitors,” he continued. “Nothing in life is guaranteed, but having that level of uncertainty of what’s going to happen next, and what’s going to be isolated next, is our largest concern. Since we don’t know, we basically want to manage it, be as conservative as we possibly can for the safety of visitors and park staff.”

Scientists say looking at the big picture over the timeline of Kilauea, the change in the landscape is hardly surprising. It falls in line with what volcanoes are expected to do. 

But they also admit they never expected to see it in their lifetime.

“Astounding is a perfect word for it. It really is amazing,” Neal said. “I used to have the privilege of having the office closest to the lava lake, and every morning I could look out there and see this amazing phenomenon of the largest lava lake on the planet. To watch that drain away and then to start to feel damaging earthquakes, and then to have to leave the building and watch the subsidence progress across the caldera floor, it truly is on a personal level pretty mind-blowing.”

Like the eruptions of 1924, 1955, and the eruption that consumed much of Kalapana, scientists say the activity we’re witnessing right now will be one for the history books.

“We’re just getting started. The measurements we’re making now will inform scientists for really generations and I think tremendously improve our ability to understand this system,” Anderson said.

While there is much history yet to be written, scientists agree on one fact: Lava will return to the summit again. “That’s what I’m certain of. One day there will be lava back in Kilauea caldera. We just can’t say when,” Neal said.

Park and HVO officials will hold a community meeting Thursday evening in Volcano.

They’ll address the ongoing seismic and explosion activity at Kilauea’s summit, as well as the continued closure of the Kilauea section of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at Cooper Center, 19-4030 Wright Road.

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