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Kilauea volcano: Tiny leak led to massive, unexpected collapse

Christian Fernsby |
The 2018 eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii featured the spectacular collapse of the volcano's caldera, creating a hole nearly as deep as One World Trade Center in New York City is tall at its summit.

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Now new research finds that this dramatic change was triggered by only a small leak of magma from the reservoir beneath the peak.

Instantaneous and explosive caldera collapses, such as the event that formed Oregon's Crater Lake 7,700 years ago, are a better known phenomenon.

But the new findings suggest that slow-motion collapse events such as Kilauea's—which are vastly different in nature—may be occurring at volcanoes around the world.

In fact, a comparable one occurred at Bardarbunga's caldera in Iceland between 2014 and 2015.

"What we have learned from these two events (Kilauea and Bardarbunga) is that there may not be much warning," says geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, who studied the Bardarbunga collapse but was not involved in the new Kilauea research.

At first, Gudmundsson says, caldera-collapse eruptions look a lot like typical eruptions.

"Then, when conditions are right, the magma chamber underneath a volcano can just split apart, and magma can flow freely, and the caldera roof collapses."

Kilauea is a 1,250-meter-tall, broad shield volcano on the southeastern coast of Hawaii's Big Island.

In 1983 it began belching lava from its Eastern Rift Zone, an area fractured by fissures created as gravity pulls the entire area downward, toward the sea.

That eruption culminated furiously in May 2018, when the lava lake within the caldera, or crater, at the volcano's summit began to drain like a bucket with a hole in it.

Simultaneously, the lower part of the Eastern Rift Zone came alive with lava fountains and new fissures, one of which spouted a river of lava that flowed through residential neighborhoods and into the sea.

More than 700 homes and other buildings were destroyed before the eruption stopped in August 2018.

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