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Patterns of bubble bursting and weak explosive activity in an active lava lake—Halema‘uma‘u, Kīlauea, 2015

February 18, 2021

The rise of the Halemaʻumaʻu lava lake in 2013–2018 to depths commonly 40 meters or less below the rim of the vent was an excellent opportunity to study outgassing and the link to associated eruptive activity. We use videography to investigate the rise and bursting of bubbles through the free surface of the lake in 2015. We focus on low-energy explosive activity (spattering) in which the ascent and bursting of meter-sized, mechanically decoupled bubbles trigger the ejection of fluidal bombs to tens of meters above the free surface. A decay in initial pyroclast velocity with time follows the same functional form as that observed for ejecta at Stromboli (Italy), suggesting a similar bubble-burst mechanism. We also find that the upward velocity of the bubble crust as it bursts is around 2.5 times higher than the velocity of the bubble as it rises through the lake surface, indicating that the bubbles are over-pressurized. Prior to bursting, bubbles emerge at velocities of 4 to 14 meters per second, suggesting rise from depths of at least tens of meters but unaffected by the deeper circulation of the lava lake.

We identify three styles of bubble bursting: (1) isolated, widely spaced, single bursts, (2) recurring clusters of discrete bubbles, and (3) prolonged episodes of overlapping bubble bursts along elongate narrow sources typically parallel to the margins of the lava lake. We call these styles of bursting isolated events, clusters, and prolonged episodes, respectively. The frequency of bubble bursting and the mass fluxes of gas and pyroclasts increase from styles 1 to 3. The intensity (mass eruption rate) for single bubble bursts ranges from 280 to 3,500 kilograms per second. The total erupted mass of pyroclasts for a single burst is <4,000 kilograms (kg) and for a single well-constrained prolonged episode is about 107 kg. These numbers place the observed spattering at the lowest end of basaltic explosivity in terms of erupted mass (that is, magnitude). Most ejecta fell back into the crater; only strands of Pele’s hair rose to heights where they could be advected downwind from the vent.

Collectively, the explosive activity accompanying the three styles of bubble bursting spans from impulsive, transient eruptive behaviors to sustained discharge; this shift represents progressively higher frequency and intensity of bubble bursting.