Categorized | Sci-Tech

Volcano Watch: Kilauea’s 1952 summit eruption

 

A single low lava fountain emitted a steady stream of gas when photographed by Fred Rackle on July 21, 1952, when Halemaumau Crater was more than twice as deep as it is at present. View is to the southwest. (Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

A single low lava fountain emitted a steady stream of gas when photographed by Fred Rackle on July 21, 1952, when Halemaumau Crater was more than twice as deep as it is at present. View is to the southwest. (Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

About 20 minutes before midnight on June 27, 1952, almost exactly 57 years ago, Mrs. John Fox walked from the living room of her home on the east rim of Kilauea caldera into an adjoining room. 

She was instantly startled by a loud, whistling roar coming through an open window. Running back into her living room, she saw a bright orange glow lighting the night sky. 

At about the same time, just down the road at Kilauea Military Camp (KMC), Colonel B.W. Rushton pointed out the bright glow to Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) staff member John Forbes, who quickly called Gordon Macdonald, then Scientist-in-Charge of HVO. 

When John Forbes arrived minutes later at HVO, on the edge of Kilauea caldera, he was greeted by the top of a huge lava fountain rising above the rim of Halemaumau. 

The crater was then nearly 800 feet deep — more than twice its current depth from the rim to the crater’s floor. By the time Gordon Macdonald arrived at HVO some 10 minutes later, the fountain was no longer visible, but incandescent fragments could still be seen arcing out of the crater. 

Quickly grabbing the necessary equipment, Macdonald and Forbes set out by car for Halemaumau Crater to make detailed observations. As they followed Crater Rim Drive down onto the western floor of Kilauea caldera — the section of road that is closed today due to ongoing summit activity — they encountered a choking, sulfurous fume cloud so thick that they could barely see the road. 

The fall of tephra onto the road was so heavy that they were hard-pressed to keep the car moving forward as it plowed through the drifts of pumice. 

The hail of tephra onto the car, with pieces reaching up to 4 inches across, sand-blasted the car’s exterior to the point that it later had to be repainted and have its windshield replaced. 

Pressing onward, Macdonald and Forbes passed through the tephra fall and quickly walked to the southeast rim of Halemaumau, reaching it about 10 minutes past midnight. When they peered into the crater, they saw a continuous line of lava fountains, 2,600 feet in length, crossing the entire crater floor from southwest to northeast and extending part-way up the northeastern crater wall. 

For the most part, the individual fountains were 50 to 100 feet in height, but a fountain 400 feet high jetted up near the bottom of the southwestern wall of the crater — probably a diminished version of the same fountain, at more than 800 feet in height, seen minutes earlier from HVO. 

Though views were poor due to the heavy fume, brief glimpses of the crater floor showed that older spatter cones on the floor of Halemaumau had already been buried beneath a rising lava lake. This suggested that more than 4 million cubic yards of lava were erupted in the first half-hour of the eruption. It would take about six days for Kilauea’s current east rift zone eruption to pump out that much lava today. 

The eruption rate quickly declined after the initial outbreak, but lava fountains continued to play on the surface of the lava lake over the following weeks. 

By late summer 1952, activity had begun to decline, but the eruption persisted until Nov. 10, when the last fountaining activity was observed. 

Having erupted for 136 days, the 1952 summit eruption brought to an end, in grand fashion, any doubts as to whether or not Kilauea was still alive. 

Prior to 1952, Kilauea had been quiescent since October 1934, when the previous summit eruption had ended, and some had begun to think that Kilauea was dead. 

But frequent earthquakes and the occasional swelling and shrinking of the volcano over the intervening years told volcanologists otherwise. It was no great surprise, then, when the eruption finally occurred. 

Followed by dozens of eruptions in the years since, the 1952 eruption undoubtedly ushered in the current era of volcanic activity at Kilauea. Today’s ongoing summit and east rift zone eruptions are just the most recent in the string of eruptions that have followed since Mrs. Fox was surprised by the glow outside her living room window.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Become a fan on facebook

 

Quantcast
%d bloggers like this: