Crystals may help reveal hidden Kilauea Volcano behavior

Scientists use Kilauea crystals to understand hidden volcano behavior.


Located on the Big Island of Hawai’i, Kīlauea volcano threatens hundreds of homes and millions of dollars of property.

To get insights about flow conditions before and during an eruption, Stanford scientists used millimeter-sized crystals obtained from the 1959 eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano. After analyzing the crystals, scientists found that the crystals were oriented in an odd but surprisingly consistent pattern.

Scientists theorized that the crystals were formed by a wave within the subsurface magma that affected the crystals’ flow’s direction.

Jenny Suckale, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), said, “I always had the suspicion that these crystals are way more interesting and important than we give them credit for.”

When a volcano erupts, the lava reaches the surface and is shocked by the cooler atmospheric temperature, quickly entrapping the naturally occurring olivine crystals and bubbles. The process happens so rapidly that the crystals cannot grow, effectively capturing what happened during the eruption.

The new simulation- based on crystal orientations from Kilauea Iki- provides a baseline for understanding the flow of Kilauea’s conduit, the tubular passage through which hot magma below ground rises to the Earth’s surface.

Ph.D. student Michelle DiBenedetto said, “It’s exciting that we can use these small-scale processes to understand this huge system.”

The group’s examination demonstrates the odd alignment of the crystals was brought about by magma moving in two ways immediately, with one flow directly on the other, instead of pouring through the conduit in one constant flow.

Suckale said“This data is important for advancing our future research about these hazards because if I can measure the wave, I can constrain the magma flow – and these crystals allow me to get at that wave.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Michelle DiBenedetto et al. Crystal aggregates record the pre-eruptive flow field in the volcanic conduit at Kīlauea, Hawaii. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd4850
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