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December 12, 2022

As the USGS responds to the 2022 eruption of Mauna Loa, the USGS Volcano Science Center and the volcano observatories mark a number of successful accomplishments.

The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) team was prepared!

Color photograph of volcanic vent
As of 7:00 a.m. on December 12, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologists observed only residual incandescence and no lava movement in the fissure 3 vent on the Northeast Rift Zone of Mauna Loa. The channels below the vent appear drained of lava and no longer feed the main flow front. USGS image by F. Trusdell. 

On Sunday, November 27, when Mauna Loa erupted, it was not a surprise. USGS and emergency management partners have been building scientific understanding about this and other Hawaiian volcanoes and their related risks and hazards over many, many years. This commitment to monitoring, as well as honing communication pathways, have been critical to sustaining preparedness efforts.

The HVO team has been focused on Mauna Loa for the past few years following Kilauea’s eruption in 2018. In 2019, the volcano alert level and aviation color code were raised to ADVISORY/YELLOW when earthquake and deformation rates reached levels classified as “above background.” Starting in July 2022, scientists harnessed HVO’s monitoring network to detect further increases in earthquake activity and ground movement. In late summer, the data showed notable ground movement, which indicated that magma was accumulating beneath the surface. The USGS and local partners, including Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Service and the County of Hawaiʻi Civil Defense Agency, intensified internal and interagency planning and community engagement as concern for an eruption increased. Although HVO and partners were concerned in terms of impacts, when lava finally broke the surface, the teams were ready. Mauna Loa has now joined neighboring Kīlauea volcano in active eruption for the first time in 38 years.

Witnessing two simultaneously erupting volcanoes inside Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is a remarkable experience shared with Island of Hawaiʻi residents, thousands of tourists, and interested scientists and citizens around the planet. In fact, even for the veteran scientists and partners who have seen many volcanic eruptions, Mauna Loa is a magnificent natural phenomenon to see up close. At night, the bright orange glow of lava rivers winding down the north flank of Mauna Loa is reminiscent of mesmerizing embers that dance in a campfire. The sights, smells, and sounds still capture the imagination and curiosity that inspired many to pursue careers in volcano science and emergency response. It is hard not to be awestruck.

Scientific Fieldwork Around the Clock

Scientist documenting eruption
A geologist documents fissure 3 erupting on the Northeast Rift Zone of Mauna Loa. In the field, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologists measure the lava fountain and cone heights, channel widths, and lava channel dynamics. USGS image by J. Schmith. 

There is a lot to do during an active eruption.

The USGS HVO team keeps up with monitoring, sampling, analysis and sharing these findings. The scientists trek at high altitude across the mountain of volcanic terrain created by older lava fields, carefully sample active lava, measure flow position, speeds and temperatures, lava fountain heights, acoustic sounds, gas emissions, and other parameters to better understand the eruption and its potential impacts. Behind the scenes, others work to ensure data are flowing both back to the observatory and to the public and emergency management partners. It takes passion, dedication, and a profound sense of responsibility to fulfill the USGS mission to monitor, study, and understand these volcanoes.  Altogether, the USGS HVO –with the help of scientists from the other four USGS volcano observatories— conducts around-the-clock observations, frequent satellite and geospatial analyses, and modelling of lava flow behavior to help keep authorities equipped to respond and prepare for all eventualities.

New Technologies and Tools Advance Science

Since the last eruption of Mauna Loa in 1984, scientists are using a suite of new technologies and cutting-edge tools that mark important advancements for science and safety. Tools like high-resolution satellite imagery, InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), hand-held thermal cameras, physics-based lava flow models, and other cutting-edge tools put more and better information into the scientists’ hands. The relatively new capability of instrumenting uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), also known as drones, with onboard spectrometers and other instruments allow scientists to safely reach and sample places they could not reach before.

Importantly, the work is not done until these findings are communicated to critical partners like emergency managers and planners who use this information to support public safety. Information is also shared with the general public through alerts and social media and will ultimately be shared with the global volcano research community through conferences presentations and published papers to support advancements in volcanology and Earth science.

Color photograph of volcanic vent
Close up view of the molten bombs being thrown into the air by the lava fountains at fissure 3 on the Northeast Rift Zone of Mauna Loa. USGS image by D. Downs.

Keep up with Current Conditions:

Follow the status of eruptive activity on the Hawaiʻi Volcano Observatory’s Mauna Loa website. How long this eruption will last is unknown. Will this activity repeat the last eruption in 1984 and last a few weeks or will this rift zone eruption transition to a long, low-eruption-rate event and last months or more? Final impacts remain hard to forecast with any certainty, but USGS is working closely with partners at the County of Hawai‘i Civil Defense Agency, Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency and other Hawaii state departments, National Park Service, FEMA, National Weather Service, and many others to provide situational awareness with the best scientific observations and interpretations possible.

There are a number of ways to follow along:

The USGS is meeting the needs of local communities and answering a steady stream of national and international questions via social media and email.

Learn more about USGS Natural Hazards science. You can follow: Natural Hazards FB and subscribe to The Monitor newsletter, to keep up with USGS Natural Hazards science.