Hawai’i’s Kīlauea Volcano Returns Dramatically With First Eruption in Two Years

The spewing lava mixed with water at the summit, sending a plume of ash and steam into the sky

An image of the erupting volcano. Two people stand in the foreground with cameras, but only their silhouettes are visible. In the background, an orange cloud of steam is rising and the ground has bright orange crack in it.
On Sunday evening, the crater's walls started to crackle as sizzling lava emerged from fissures and trickled into the water-filled crater below. B. Carr / U.S. Geological Survey

Earlier this week the Kīlauea volcano on Hawai'i’s Big Island—one of the world's most active volcanoes—erupted for the first time in more than two years.

During the last few weeks, the United States Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory detected more frequent mini earthquakes and movements beneath the volcano, signaling that something was stirring underground. Finally, on Sunday night, the observatory detected a glow in the Halema‘uma‘u crater at the volcano's summit. Then, the crater's walls started to crackle as sizzling lava emerged from fissures and trickled into the water-filled crater below, reports Jeanna Bryner for Live Science.

Earlier this year scientists discovered that water has been pooling in the Halema‘uma‘u crater since July 2019. They predicted that this new pond could ultimately lead to more explosive eruptions in the future because when lava meets water, it causes steam and pressure builds up and can spark a more powerful reaction.

That's exactly what happened on Sunday night. Lava emerged from fissures and flowed down into the crater until the water boiled off, which turned the night sky into a bright, fiery swirl of gas, ash and steam. One fissure even shot a lava fountain 165 feet up in the air, reports Live Science. Ultimately, what was once a lake of water turned into a newly formed lava lake, according to the Weather Channel.

Around an hour after Kīlauea erupted, a magnitude 4.4 earthquake rocked the southern part of the volcano. Then the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory issued a red alert, meaning that an eruption is imminent, Jaclyn Diaz reports for NPR. The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency later ordered residents to stay inside to avoid the falling ash, which can irritate eyes and lungs, reports Dharna Noor for Gizmodo. But by Monday afternoon, the danger had waned, and the alert was taken down a level, according to the Weather Channel.

“The lava seems to be decreasing, but the emission of steam and gases from the crater remains the same,” Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, tells Christine Hauser of the New York Times. “The lava is not moving anywhere. [The agency was still] monitoring air quality, and that is basically the only thing that is of immediate concern at this time.”

Kīlauea's latest eruption poses little risk to the public—though it is still ongoing—because the lava pooled in the crater instead of flowing down the mountain, reports Caleb Jones for the Associated Press. In comparison, when Kīlauea erupted in 2018, it spewed 320,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of lava that flowed for four months, destroying more than 700 homes.