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In March and April, geologists at the US Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory took notice of ground inflation at both the summit and the main vent of Kilauea. Inflation is a sign of pressure building beneath the surface, often because of an intrusion of magma that culminates in an eruption. Such readings are not a surprise: Kilauea, which towers 1.2 kilometers above sea level on the southeastern side of the Big Island, has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983, with most lava flows originating from the summit caldera, Halemaʻumaʻu, and a vent in the volcano’s East Rift Zone, Puʻu ʻŌʻō.

But this time, the magma took a far more destructive path. On 3 May it broke the surface through multiple fissures that opened along the volcano’s eastern flank, toward the tip of the Big Island. New vents opened 40 kilometers away from the crater, in the middle of a residential area. Lava fountains spewed 70 meters into the air and destroyed more than 30 homes over several days. Sulfur dioxide gas plumes billowed to dangerous concentrations. Nearly 2000 residents were impacted.

So far almost everything about the eruption has caught geophysicists by surprise. They don’t yet understand how and why Kilauea started to erupt in a new place, and they are struggling to predict just how the eruption will evolve. In the long term, they’d like to know whether the current event will fundamentally change where magma is stored and how future eruptions proceed. “We need to learn as much as possible about the nuances of what happened and why,” says geophysicist Michael Poland of the US Geological Survey. “This is a terrible tragedy that is impacting people’s lives.”

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Category: Science