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Volcano Watch — Kalaupapa and Kauhakō: What a difference a few hundred thousand years can make

February 16, 2012

Last fall, residents of Kalaupapa settlement on the Island of Moloka‘i began reporting unusual sulfurous odors coming from the direction of Kauhakō Crater lake, a small, deep lake located just a few kilometers (miles) away.

An understandable question was quickly raised as to whether this might be a sign of impending volcanic activity. After all, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a known volcanic gas, and people were smelling the gas with the rotten egg odor from a volcanic crater for the first time in over 50 years. Might something be up, volcanically speaking?

Not likely. Kauhakō Crater, which hosts the lake, is an extinct eruptive vent that formed at the top of Pu‘u‘uao lava shield some time between 340 and 570 thousand years ago. Long ago, Moloka‘i drifted away from the hot spot that supplies the magma currently driving eruptions on Hawai‘i Island. So, while not impossible, renewed volcanism on Moloka‘i at this stage in its life would be an extremely rare event.

Fortunately, the National Park Service (NPS) had been studying the water quality and biological aspects of Kauhakō Lake for some time as part of their Inventory and Monitoring Program, so they responded immediately to the H2S reports. But before we talk about what they found, we should say something about the lake itself.

Kauhakō is identified as the only truly deep lake in the Hawaiian Islands. The lake's modest footprint of 0.35 hectares (0.86 acres) and its maximum depth of about 250 m (820 ft) give it the largest depth-to-area ratio for any lake on Earth. In profile, the lake looks more like a tall test tube or, perhaps, a slender champagne glass than a typical dish-shaped lake.

Upon closer study, the lake becomes even more interesting. Measurements of Kauhakō carried out in the early 1970s showed it to be meromictic lake. This term is used to describe a lake comprised of multiple layers that usually don't intermix. In the case of Kauhakō, the top layer is made up of brackish (salt and fresh) water up to a few meters (yards) thick. This oxygen-containing upper layer supports, among other things, microscopic phytoplankton and small native shrimp. The lake's surface is situated at sea level but has no obvious connection to the ocean, 1.6 km (1 mi) away.

Investigators exploring the 800-foot-thick bottom layer found it to be of essentially sea-water composition, although, unlike the Pacific Ocean, it is devoid of oxygen. Interesting chemistry happens in this layer, however. Through a series of reactions, sulfate ions react with ordinary organic matter—leaves and other debris that fall into the lake—to generate hydrogen sulfide. Because the lower and upper water layers don't mix, this H2S remains trapped (dissolved) in the lower water layer and slowly accumulates over time.

Now we return to last November, when the NPS responded to Kalaupapa resident reports of H2S odor wafting in from Kauhakō. When they began their descent from the crater rim, NPS staff could easily detect the tell-tale rotten egg odor of H2S. The reason for this became apparent as they reached the lake's surface. The top water layer had effectively disappeared, either through mixing with the bottom layer in a rare overturning of the lake or, because of the dry conditions that had recently been present, caused it to evaporate completely. Whatever the precise cause, the salty, sulfide-rich waters, formerly trapped, were at the surface of the lake, where H2S could escape to the atmosphere. The fresh-water aquatic life—phytoplankton and shrimp—were noticeably absent, unable to live in this new environment.

Since that time, the lake has seemingly struggled to regain its former layered character. As a precaution, NPS, in consultation with HVO, began monitoring hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and oxygen levels within Kauhakō Crater. As a further affirmation that this was a distinct lake "event" rather than a volcanic one, HVO, using remote satellite methods and other instrumentation, has been monitoring for obvious changes in surface temperature, deformation, and seismicity.

This occurrence at Kauhakō Crater reminds us that natural systems are complex, and whether the lake is filled with water or lava, there's often a lot going on beneath the surface.


Volcano Activity Update

A lava lake present within the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook vent during the past week resulted in night-time glow that was visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook. The lake, which is normally about 100–125 m (330–410 ft) below the floor of Halema‘uma‘u Crater and visible by HVO's Webcam, rose and fell slightly during the week in response to a series of large deflation-inflation cycles.

On Kīlauea's east rift zone, surface lava flows were active in the upper part of the flow field, about 4.5–7 km (2.8–4.3 miles) southeast of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, over the past week. As of Wednesday, February 15, these flows were active in the upper part of Royal Gardens subdivision, at an elevation of about 390 m (1,280 ft). There are no active flows on the coastal plain, and there is no active ocean entry. Over the past week, several small flows were erupted within Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō crater.

No earthquakes beneath Hawai‘i Island were reported felt this past week.

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