Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Volcano Watch — Magma: What's hot and what's not

November 9, 2017

Scientists at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory routinely collect lava samples from Kīlauea and use the chemistry of these samples to infer the temperature of magma (molten rock below Earth's surface).

A USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist collects a sample of pāhoehoe lava on Kīlauea Volcano's East Rift Zone. Steam rising from the flow resulted from heavy rain falling on the hot lava. Analyses of this and other samples provide information on the changing temperatures of Kīlauea lavas, which, in turn, reveal information about the volcano's internal plumbing and magma transport processes. USGS photo by J. Babb.

Over time, these measurements have shown that magma temperatures rise and fall during an eruption, perhaps as the supply of magma to the volcano changes, or when the plumbing system is disrupted. Consequently, magma temperatures estimated from lava samples provide a fundamental means for tracking changing magma conditions and pathways within the volcano.

So, what's the real scoop on magma temperatures? What temperature is deemed "hot"—and what's not?

Magma rises from the mantle, a region deep within the Earth, into the "roots" of Kīlauea at temperatures of around 1500 degrees Celsius (2700 degrees Fahrenheit). From there, the magma eventually makes its way to a primary storage chamber that's about 3.5 km (2 mi) beneath the summit of Kīlauea—a trip that takes about 8 years, according to a recently published study on the volcano's magma chemistry.

By the time magma reaches Kīlauea's summit storage chamber, it has cooled considerably. Samples collected from the lava lake within Halema‘uma‘u, which is a window into the summit storage chamber, indicate that temperatures within the chamber are around 1200 degrees Celsius (2200 degrees Fahrenheit).

If lava erupted at Kīlauea is 1200 degrees Celsius (2200 degrees Fahrenheit) or hotter, it is truly "hot." This means the eruption likely tapped directly into Kīlauea's summit magma storage chamber or regions even deeper within the volcano.

Lower eruption temperatures can result from magma stalling, cooling, and mixing as it moves out of the summit storage chamber and through the volcano's shallow plumbing system.

For example, at the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption site, magma has been transported underground from Kīlauea's summit and through the East Rift Zone, a distance of about 19 km (12 mi). During this trip, it mixes with cooler magma stored in pockets along the rift.

The result is that lava samples collected at the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō vent now indicate magma temperature of about 1150 degrees Celsius (2100 degrees Fahrenheit), roughly 50 degrees Celsius (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than magma in the volcano's summit storage chamber.

A drop from 1200 to 1150 degrees Celsius (about 2200 to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit) may seem small. However, a significant amount of change to the magma occurs during that minor decrease in temperature. At 1200 degrees Celsius (2200 degrees Fahrenheit), magma in the summit storage chamber has already cooled enough to crystallize a bit.

At that point, it's mixture of liquid magma and minor amounts of olivine and spinel, high-temperature mineral crystals. But, by the time the magma reaches Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, it has cooled and crystalized even further, adding pyroxene and plagioclase, slightly lower temperature mineral crystals, to the mix.

But how cool can Kīlauea magma get? As it turns out, it can't cool too much before it solidifies, which occurs around 1000 degrees Celsius (about 1830 degrees Fahrenheit). Of course, at this temperature the magma would still be glowing hot. But since it's no longer a liquid, it can't flow as one.

So, within Kīlauea, magma can have temperatures from around 1200 degrees Celsius (2200 degrees Fahrenheit) down to about 1000 degrees Celsius (about 1830 degrees Fahrenheit). The former temperature is indicative of molten rock within the summit storage chamber, and the latter temperature suggests solidified, but still very hot, rock.

On Kīlauea Volcano's East Rift Zone, where magma is being steadily transported underground from the summit to Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, temperatures hover around 1150 degrees Celsius (2100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Exactly how we infer magma temperatures from the chemistry of lava samples collected at Kīlauea will have to be the topic of another Volcano Watch. But the short explanation is that we use experimentally-calibrated equations that model chemistry changes during cooling and crystallization. These are called geothermometers.

So, whether magma is hot, or not so hot, measuring its temperature through lava samples provides a window into the inner workings of a volcano.

Volcano Activity Update

This past week, Kīlauea Volcano's summit lava lake level fluctuated with summit inflation and deflation, ranging about 28–34 m (92–112 ft) below the vent rim. On the East Rift Zone, the 61g flow remained active, with lavareaching the Kamokuna delta and surface breakouts downslope of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō. The 61g flows do not pose an immediate threat to nearby communities.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Small-magnitude earthquakes occurred beneath the summit caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone, mostly at depths less than 5 km (3 mi). GPS and satellite radar measurements continue to show deformation related to inflation of a magma reservoir beneath the summit caldera and upper Southwest Rift Zone. No significant changes in volcanic gas emissions were measured.

No earthquakes were reported felt on the Island of Hawai‘i during the past week.

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.