The largest active volcano in the world was going to erupt, as it did this week, an hour before the lava began to flow. There were public officials trying to alert nearby residents. The scientists rushed to figure out which parts of the island were in danger. The plans were made to observe the event of the mountain's exhalation.
The eruption was years in the making and was matched by the ongoing effort to monitor the volcano with seismometers, spectrometers, tiltmeters, and other state-of-the-art tools. Wendy Stovall is a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey. Much about the inner workings of the mountain is not known.
Weston Thelen, a volcanologist with the U.S.G.S., said that sheer size, mineral composition and heat all presented logistical difficulties for scientists and public officials hoping to predict its movements. He said that mauna loa is a monster.
Jim Kauahikaua, a volcanologist with the U.S.G.S. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, has had to balance the desire to collect with the concern for public safety.
Dr. Kauahikaua said that their main goal was to mitigate the hazard scientifically. We learn to temper out excitement and work toward our main goal.
Although the eruption has posed little danger to surrounding communities, it has lent a sense of urgency to scientists who are eager to learn more about the volcano. How long will the opportunity last? Laske said that nobody knew how long the eruption would last.
Thelen said, "We get very rare looks at what's happening in the volcano." We are blowing it if we just put people in chairs at the end of the lava flow.
Rocks made molten and less dense by heat from the planet's core can push through to the surface if there is a collision or separation above the boundaries of Earth's tectonic plates. The existence of the Hawaiian Islands puzzled geologists for centuries.
John Tuzo Wilson proposed in 1963, that the islands, which are covered with layers of volcanic stone, sit above a magma plume, which forms when rock from the deep mantle bubbles up and pools below the ground. The hot spot constantly pushes toward the surface, sometimes bursting through the plate, melting and altering the surrounding rock. The plate shifts over millions of years, creating new volcanoes on top of the plate and leaving inactive ones in their wake. The Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain is one of the archipelagoes that were found.
The hot spot theory got a lot of support. Helge Gonnermann is a volcanologist at Rice University.
Scientists began placing seismometers on the ocean floor in the 2000s, which led to some confirmed observations. John Orcutt, a seismologist at the University of California, San Diego, who helped lead that research, said that the seismometers provided an X-ray of the volcano. The instruments were able to read the direction and speed of the flow, and they pointed to a hot spot.
The hot spot has been fomenting volcanic activity for tens of millions of years and it arrived in its current position 600,000 years ago. It will produce volcanic activity as long as it remains there. He said that few things on the planet are predictable.
Predicting when, where and how intense these eruptions will be is more difficult closer to the surface. The more smooth the behavior gets, the deeper you go. When the interface between rock and molten rock and the ocean is created, the magma tends to come out occasionally.
The molten basalt is less dense than the magma beneath Mount Vesuvius and Mount St. The mountain is about 10 miles from base to summit and covers 2,000 square miles.
The movement of thinner magma makes it harder for seismometers to detect, which makes it harder for scientists to map the system that feeds eruptions.
Satellites are not sensitive enough to see deeper into Mauna loa than the shallow magma reservoir below the summit. Dr. Gonnermann said it was not clear if there were additional storage caverns at greater depths.
When the volcano starts breathing, things go from bad to worse. Magma pushes upward and causes the volcano to swell. Seismometers can be used to detect the depth and intensity of the minerals. From this, along with data about the gases and crystals, a picture begins to emerge from the chaos.
If the pressure is high or the system is moving fast, we can get clues to what is happening. When these things don't erupt, they're quiet.
In the years after it last erupted in 1984, the volcano remained mostly silent, even as the larger volcano, Kilauea, erupted continuously. Seismometers detected clusters of low-magnitude earthquakes deep underground as the ground beneath the volcano began to vibrate more and more.
It stops inflating and hangs out after a while. You get lulled into the thought that another swarm is on the way.
According to Sean Solomon, a seismologist at Columbia University, earthquakes are caused by the volcano's weight pushing down on the seafloor, but most of the time it's due to rising magma which pushes up and fracturing rocks
According to Dr. Solomon, rocks retain memories of previous injuries. These preferred paths to rise can be traced back to a plumbing system underneath the volcanoes on Hawaii.
Dr. Thelen said: "All we can do is pass waves through the earth and see how they're impacted, and try to make a model that explains how that wave is impacted beneath the volcano." He said, "The closer we look, the more questions we have."
Seismometers around the summit of the volcano began to show more activity at night. Dr. Laske said that it was a telltale sign that the magma was moving upward when they found where the earthquake was coming from.
One of the rift zones is on the northeast side of the mountain while the other is on the southeast. The magma pooled for miles down the slope in glowing streams. There is an empty area of the island. The city of Hilo has a population of 45k.
The eruption began at the top of the mountain when molten rock spurted through fissures in the rock. Scientists didn't know which of the two eruptions would be the one this time. Thousands of people would be in danger if the southwest flank were to be true. Dr. Stovall said they didn't know the eruption had moved to the northeast zone until they flew over it and saw the lava.
The lava flow has slowed down on the side of the mountain, but it is still threatening to cross the road. Magma continues to erupt from the northeast rift zone, spurting upward in red fountains, and scientists don't know what to expect next.
volcanologists and seismologists are trying to decipher the incoming data by placing more monitoring instruments around active zones and collecting more satellite images of the mountain We are trying to understand what is happening in the volcano.
No one knows when the next eruption will happen. This is the first eruption of its kind for some volcanologists on the Big Island. 38 years is not very long on geological time scales.
Dr. Orcutt said that it was something that had happened for thousands to millions of years and wouldn't stop. You have to let the magma go.