Mauna Loa is Awake—and She’s not the Only One

There are a few volcanoes around the world that people tend to know by name—and Mauna Loa is one of them. Fuji or Vesuvius might also come to mind when the word “volcano” sounds through the air, however, as of now, most of the public eye is on Mauna Loa.

Mauna Loa: The Basics

Mauna Loa’s current eruption started November 27 at 11:30 p.m.1 and the volcano hasn’t stopped putting on a show since. The past 38 years marked the longest break between eruptions—this, however, doesn’t mean that the volcano is about to be done once the current lava flows cool down. According to USGS, “Mauna Loa is active and it will erupt again.”

Curious to see what the current eruption looks like? You’re in luck; the USGS has set up a permanent live coverage of fissure 3. You can find the broadcast on YouTube or below.

Mauna Loa is one gorgeous mountain—and the largest one in the world by volume. Over half of the Island of Hawai’i, composed of five volcanoes, is actually Mauna Loa!3 It also happens to be the tallest one. Yes, Mount Everest reaches up to 8,849 meters above sea level, making it the highest peak on Earth. However, Mauna Loa, having grown from the ocean floor, has easily overgrown Mount Everest.

It reaches 4,169 meters above sea level and has additional 5 kilometers (3 miles) to reach the bottom of the ocean. But wait, there’s more! Thanks to its incredible weight, the mountain also sinks another 8 kilometers (5 miles) below the ocean floor.2 If you don’t feel like doing the math itself, that adds to a total height of roughly 17 kilometers (10.5 miles)!

The gentle slope of Mauna Loa as seen from the flanks of Mauna Kea to the north. Younger lava flows appear dark on the volcano’s flank, and clouds rest in the eastern saddle between the two volcanoes. Public Domain. USG HVO

Having erupted after 38 years of deep sleep, this true giant of a mountain might only be getting started—or it might be nearly done. Why? According to Geology Hub (a YouTube account run by ‘a full-time geologist/volcanologist who graduated from Arizona State University’), “The last three eruptions at Mauna Loa between 1950 and 1984 lasted between 20 hours and 23 days, and it is quite likely that the ongoing eruption will fit somewhere in this range.”

My Time with the Volcano

I was in Hawaii three times. Every time, I somehow managed to avoid every and each eruption that went on. Absolutely infuriating, I know.

The first time I visited Hawaii was in 2018, right before Kīlauea started to erupt. I was on the continent and the volcano was going strong. Before it had stopped, I managed to get a spot on a research expedition to Hawaii—I’d be coming back in July 2021! Then Kīlauea decided to take a break; the HVO/USGS announced that the eruption had stopped on May 26, 2021.4

The second time I was in Hawaii, it was for said research expedition. Global Treks & Adventures was putting together a guide to the incredible island and I was fortunate enough to be researching and writing about its geology. We spent one of the adventure-packed days near Kīlauea with its newly remodeled crater and hiked through Kīlauea Iki. Mauna Loa had its watchful eyes on us the whole time, even though it liked to hide in the clouds.

While we concluded the research, the volcano slept peacefully. We left the island to complete the rest of our work from our own homes. A few weeks later, Kīlauea woke up once again on September 29.5 Okay, cool.

The third time I got to go to Hawaii was a part of saying goodbye to my home. I didn’t go to the Big Island even though I wished I could; instead, I visited a friend in O’ahu, staying far away from the ongoing eruption. Now I’m the farthest away from Hawai’i I’ve been since I first visited, and Mauna Loa is putting on a show. Oh well. At least the live stream is working. (Knocking on my wooden table.)

Kīlauea Iki with the Kīlauea crater and Mauna Loa in the background

What Else is Cooking?

As I stated in the intro, many volcanoes have been going off recently. Besides the mid-ocean ridges where some kind of volcanism is going on nearly at all times, there are some 1,350 potentially active volcanoes in the world.6 From these, approximately 20 are going off at any given time.7 This fall, as of October 28, incredible 47 volcanoes were in “continuing eruption status.”9

This week alone, the Smithsonian / USGS Weekly Volcanic Activity Report added six new eruptions: San Miguel in Eastern El Salvador, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Klyuchevskoy in Central Kamchatka (Russia), Etna in Sicily (Italy), Cotopaxi in Ecuador, and Ahyi on Mariana Islands.10

Hunga Tonga—Hunga Ha’Apai

You may have heard about the Hunga Tonga—Hunga Ha’apai volcano which is now said to have produced the largest atmospheric eruption in over 100 years.8 During this eruption, pyroclastic flows (“currents made up of dense lava, volcanic ash, and gases which can reach temperatures of 1,000°C and speeds of 700km/hr”) spread as far as 80-100 kilometers out from the volcano.8 They had enough power to “flow uphill over huge ridges and then back down again,” said Dr. Emily Lane, NIWA Principal Scientist – Natural Hazards.8

A mini-documentary about the Hunga Tonga—Hunga Ha’apai volcano by New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research

Yasur

Another volcano that’s been making proverbial waves (for quite some time!) is Yasur in Vanuatu. Ash, gas, and steam emissions are all a part of the explosion—together with some volcano bombs as of November 24.11 One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Yasur “has erupted many times per hour for at least 800 years.12” Captain Cook first observed the eruption in 1774, therefore, its activity Is often cited as “ongoing since at least AD 1774.13

Strombolian eruption of Yasur. Credit: Volcano Discovery

Etna

Etna is a volcano in Italy that has recently stirred from its sleep. As it’s currently covered under a layer of snow, the eruption, though small, can be quite eye-catching. This beauty, however, has its dark side; “contact [of snow] with the lava flow may likely cause an explosion of steam and water.14” Etna is a volcano with “one of the world’s longest documented records of volcanism, dating back to 1500 BCE.15” But Etna wasn’t always the typically-shaped stratovolcano as we know it to be today. It actually grew over a much older shield volcano.15 Shield volcanoes, unlike stratovolcanoes, are known for their gentle slopes that can often make them look no more special than an ordinary, albeit gigantic, hill to the untrained eye.

A small stream of lava makes its way down Etna’s snowy slope. Credit: @etnawalk/twitter

There are many more volcanoes worth your attention. If you’re interested, simply visit the Global Volcanism Program website, look at the column on the right with “New Activity/Highlight,” and go down the same rabbit hole I got stuck in for, well, a very long time. Hope you’ll enjoy the exploration! 🙂

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Sources

  1. USGS. “Frequently Asked Questions about Mauna Loa Volcano.” Frequently Asked Questions about Mauna Loa Volcano | U.S. Geological Survey, https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/frequently-asked-questions-about-mauna-loa-volcano. Accessed 5. 12. 2022.
  2. USGS. “Where Is the Largest Active Volcano in the World?” Where Is the Largest Active Volcano in the World? | U.S. Geological Survey, https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/where-largest-active-volcano-world. Accessed 5. 12. 2022.
  3. USGS. “Geology and History.” Geology and History | U.S. Geological Survey, https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/geology-and-history. Accessed 5. 12. 2022.
  4. USGS. “Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Volcano Observatory Notice for Aviation Thursday, May 27, 2021, 04:23 UTC: USGS Hazard Notification System (Hans) for Volcanoes.” HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY VOLCANO OBSERVATORY NOTICE FOR AVIATION Thursday, May 27, 2021, 04:23 UTC | USGS Hazard Notification System (HANS) for Volcanoes, https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hans2/index/notice/DOI-USGS-HVO-2021-05-26T20:19:24-07:00. Accessed 5.12.2022.
  5. USGS. “Recent Eruption.” Recent Eruption | U.S. Geological Survey, https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/recent-eruption. Accessed 5. 12. 2022.
  6. USGS. “How Many Active Volcanoes Are There on Earth?” How Many Active Volcanoes Are There on Earth? | U.S. Geological Survey, https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-many-active-volcanoes-are-there-earth. Accessed 5. 12. 2022.
  7. Global Volcanism Program. “Global Volcanism Program: How Many Active Volcanoes Are There?” Smithsonian Institution | Global Volcanism Program, https://volcano.si.edu/faq/index.cfm?question=activevolcanoes. Accessed 5. 12. 2022
  8. New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research. “Tonga Eruption Confirmed as Largest Ever Recorded.” NIWA, 21 Nov. 2022, https://niwa.co.nz/news/tonga-eruption-confirmed-as-largest-ever-recorded. Accessed 5. 12. 2022.
  9. New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research. “Tonga Eruption Confirmed as Largest Ever Recorded.” NIWA, 21 Nov. 2022, https://niwa.co.nz/news/tonga-eruption-confirmed-as-largest-ever-recorded. Accessed 6. 12. 2022.
  10. Smithsonian Institution | Global Volcanism Program. “Smithsonian / USGS Weekly Volcanic Activity Report.” Smithsonian Institution | Global Volcanism Program, https://volcano.si.edu/reports_weekly.cfm. Accessed 6. 12. 2022.
  11. Global Volcanism Program, 2022. Report on Yasur (Vanuatu). In: Sennert, S K (ed.), Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, 23 November-29 November 2022. Smithsonian Institution and US Geological Survey.
  12. Seach, John. “Volcano Live.” Yasur Volcano, Vanuatu | John Seach, http://volcanolive.com/yasur.html. Accessed 6. 12. 2022.
  13. VolcanoDiscovery. “Yasur.” VolcanoDiscovery, https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/yasur.html. Accessed 6. 12. 2022.
  14. Martin, VolcanoDiscovery. “Etna Volcano (Italy): Eruption Update & Current Activity.” Etna Volcano (Italy): Eruption Update & Current Activity, https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/etna/current-activity.html. Accessed 6. 12. 2022.
  15. Global Volcanism Program, 2022. Report on Etna (Italy). In: Sennert, S K (ed.), Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, 23 November-29 November 2022. Smithsonian Institution and US Geological Survey.

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