My Favorite Volcanic Eruption: Pu'u O'o

Pu'u O'o as I saw it in July 1986

Pu'u O'o eruption previous to the one I witnessed: June 1986.
Pu'u O'o eruption previous to the one I witnessed: June 1986. | Source

Pu'u O'o Eruption 1983-?

Coming back from a trip to Australia, my family stopped in Hawai'i for two days. Naturally, since both my parents were scientists, we headed up to the Hawai'i Volcanoes Observatory.

"Is anything erupting?" we asked.

The on-duty volcanologist checked her watch ostentatiously. "Give it another few hours."

She wasn't kidding. At the time, Pu'u O'o, a volcanic cone on the side of Kilauea Volcano, had been erupting about once a month, about 28 days apart. The supposed cause was tidal forces acting on a weak crust, although the joke at the observatory was, "Well, Madame Pele is a goddess, after all." Pele was the Hawai'ian's volcano goddess. Even scientists pay lip service respect to her: their observation post is perched on the lip of an active volcano, after all.

Sure enough, that afternoon, while we were hiking near another dormant volcanic vent, Mauna Ulu, we noticed more steam issuing from nearby fumaroles. A flotilla of helicopters passed low overhead, flying back from Pu'o O'o, some miles away. We were hiking uphill of Pu'u O'o in an area open to visitors, but we waved to make sure the pilots saw us, just in case!

This looks a lot like what I saw

Fountains of Fire: July 1986

Turning back, we headed for the prime eruption viewing spot, a gas station about seven miles from the cone. Pu'u O'o wasn't erupting from the top, as in previous eruptions. Instead, it had opened up mile-long fissures on either side of the cone. A geologist told us that he and others had been waiting for the eruption to start when their instruments detected the magma coming up under their feet! Helicopters had whisked them away about half an hour before it broke through. Now, a wall of 500-foot-tall lava fountains was dancing redly on the horizon under lowering clouds.

We watched until night fell, then drove around the other side of the island to watch the lava flows creeping downslope towards the ocean, burning through ohi'a forests. By day, the toes of lava looked black, with white steam and smoke rising up. At night they glowed and crinkled like enormous embers. My mother touched my shoulder and pointed up as we watched. The red glow from the lava lighting up the clouds appeared to form an old woman's face looking down on us.

An optical illusion, of course. Nevertheless, I tossed some ohela berries into Halema'uma'u Crater the next day with a silent mahalo to Pele.

Map of Pu'u O'o and Kilauea Volcano, Big Island of Hawai'i

show route and directions
A markerPu'u O'o Volcanic Cone -
[get directions]

Pu'u O'o cone on side of Kilauea Volcano.

B markerHalema‘uma‘u Crater -
[get directions]

Summit crater of Kilauea Volcano.

C markerMauna Ulu Cone -
[get directions]

Erupted from 1969-1974.

Fissure next to Pu'u O'o, Jul '11

Virtual Volcano Watching

That was in July 1986, when Pu'u O'o was three years old and 800 feet tall. I've been following it ever since. One of the fissures that opened that day turned into a huge lava lake, Kupaianaha. It lasted into 1992. The lava flows have glassed over the top and formed "lava tubes," piping huge volumes of lava down the mountainside to the ocean. The map shows these tubes and lava flows as black tendrils spilling downhill from the vent. They have added hundreds of acres of new coast since my visit.

Nowadays, Pu'u O'o usually has a lava lake in its summit crater, with more fissure eruptions on either side breaking out every few months. The summit of Kilauea has started erupting, too, filling part of Halema'uma'u with a lava lake on one side of the crater floor.

Someday, I want to go back and see how everything has changed. In the meantime, I watch via the Hawai'i Volcanoes Observatory Website. Their web design hasn't changed since about 1994, but there's a lot of good information there -- if you know where to look!

Most USGS images are public domain (see copyright information), unless otherwise noted. So let me share with you a few great photos from the Pu'u O'o eruption.

Pu'u O'O Photo Gallery: 30 years of almost continual eruptions

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Pu'u O'o in 1983, five months old.Pu'u O'o October 1986. Nearly 1000 feet tall. Sadly, in 1990, the lava flowed down to the town of Kalapana, destroying many homes and businesses. I remember a lovely orchid farm there.Kupaianaha lava lake in foreground, Pu'u O'o in background, 1990. In 1991-1992, Kupaianaha drained and died, and a lava pond returned to Pu'u O'o's summit crater.In 1997, Pu'u O'o collapsed. Gradually, it built back up with a new cone and crater.Gradually the cone built back up. All this time, lava tubes were building out away from Pu'u O'o, carrying lava across the slopes of Kilauea on which it stands, all the way down to the ocean many miles away. Pu'u O'o 2004, looming over its lava fields and burned forest.Lava from Pu'u O'o enters the sea, 2008.Pu'u O'o, Nov 2009. On the horizon, the main summit crater of Kilauea Volcano is also erupting. Kilauea is a huge, flat "shield volcano" which is thousands of feet high, but its lavas spread out almost horizontally, building like a giant mud patty.Ash billows up as Pu'u O'o lava pond collapses, March 5, 2011.
Pu'u O'o in 1983, five months old.
Pu'u O'o in 1983, five months old. | Source
Pu'u O'o October 1986. Nearly 1000 feet tall.
Pu'u O'o October 1986. Nearly 1000 feet tall. | Source
Sadly, in 1990, the lava flowed down to the town of Kalapana, destroying many homes and businesses. I remember a lovely orchid farm there.
Sadly, in 1990, the lava flowed down to the town of Kalapana, destroying many homes and businesses. I remember a lovely orchid farm there. | Source
Kupaianaha lava lake in foreground, Pu'u O'o in background, 1990. In 1991-1992, Kupaianaha drained and died, and a lava pond returned to Pu'u O'o's summit crater.
Kupaianaha lava lake in foreground, Pu'u O'o in background, 1990. In 1991-1992, Kupaianaha drained and died, and a lava pond returned to Pu'u O'o's summit crater. | Source
In 1997, Pu'u O'o collapsed. Gradually, it built back up with a new cone and crater.
In 1997, Pu'u O'o collapsed. Gradually, it built back up with a new cone and crater. | Source
Gradually the cone built back up. All this time, lava tubes were building out away from Pu'u O'o, carrying lava across the slopes of Kilauea on which it stands, all the way down to the ocean many miles away.
Gradually the cone built back up. All this time, lava tubes were building out away from Pu'u O'o, carrying lava across the slopes of Kilauea on which it stands, all the way down to the ocean many miles away. | Source
Pu'u O'o 2004, looming over its lava fields and burned forest.
Pu'u O'o 2004, looming over its lava fields and burned forest. | Source
Lava from Pu'u O'o enters the sea, 2008.
Lava from Pu'u O'o enters the sea, 2008. | Source
Pu'u O'o, Nov 2009. On the horizon, the main summit crater of Kilauea Volcano is also erupting. Kilauea is a huge, flat "shield volcano" which is thousands of feet high, but its lavas spread out almost horizontally, building like a giant mud patty.
Pu'u O'o, Nov 2009. On the horizon, the main summit crater of Kilauea Volcano is also erupting. Kilauea is a huge, flat "shield volcano" which is thousands of feet high, but its lavas spread out almost horizontally, building like a giant mud patty. | Source
Ash billows up as Pu'u O'o lava pond collapses, March 5, 2011.
Ash billows up as Pu'u O'o lava pond collapses, March 5, 2011. | Source

by Cameraman Geoff Mackley

Lava on Chain of Craters Road

Chain of Craters road is the old highway that used to run along the ocean and then zigzag up the gentle slope to Kilauea and Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. In 1986, I stood on Chain of Craters Road watching the lava flows coming downslope from Pu'u O'o. My parents returned a few years later and saw the lava cut across this road for the first time.

You can see why Kilauea is considered a relatively "safe" volcano: the lava moves slowly at a distance from the vent. Just follow signs and do NOT walk out on cooling black crust, which could have molten rock underneath!

Unfortunately, "relatively safe" doesn't mean "harmless." At times this eruption has spilled out of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park boundaries into the Royal Gardens Subdivision and the town of Kalapana, destroying houses and businesses. Also, "vog," emissions from the volcano mixed with fog, makes for bad air downwind of the volcano some days.

Pu'u O'o Satellite Photo September 7, 2011

Fresh lava flows around Pu'u O'o, September 2011. Visit Earth Observatory website (link above) and click image for huge high-quality satellite photo.
Fresh lava flows around Pu'u O'o, September 2011. Visit Earth Observatory website (link above) and click image for huge high-quality satellite photo. | Source

Poll: Volcano Watchers

Have you ever seen a live volcano erupting?

  • Nope, not yet.
  • Yes, once!
  • Several times.
  • Yes. In fact, I live near an active volcano!
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March 5, 2011 Pu'u O'o Collapse

Lava Lake Collapsing on Pu'u O'o Summit

Hear that huge sucking sound? A couple of times in 2011, the crater of Pu'u O'u has filled up with a lava lake over several months, then collapsed in the space of a few hours. It did it back on March 5 (right) and did it again on August 3.

There's a couple great timelapse videos of the August 3 collapse on HVO's Current Eruption Images page, which is the best page for following the latest news on Pu'u O'o.

Lava Exploding As It Enters Ocean: Mathoda@YouTube

Music Video: Pu'u O'O and Summit Crater of Kilauea (Loud!)

© 2011 Ellen

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Comments 1 comment

Hud35ad 2 years ago

I was born in Hawaii..

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