Hawaii's Kīlauea Volcano Erupts for First Time Since 2018's Destructive Rampage

An eruption started at Kīlauea summit on Dec. 20
An eruption started at Kīlauea summit on Dec. 20
Photo: USGS

In Hawaii, this cursed year is going out with even more horror. The volcano Kīlauea on the state’s Big Island erupted Sunday night.


In a statement at 9:30 that evening local time, the United States Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said “an eruption has commenced” within the volcano’s summit caldera. It began with a “glow within Halemaʻumaʻu crater,” but soon, the bright orange brilliance grew and was coupled with thick plumes of rising dark ash and smoke.

Lava boiled off the water lake that has sat inside Halemaʻumaʻu crater since the 2018 eruption. USGS found that the lava that replaced filled the crater to a depth of 32 feet (10 meters) in just two hours. It also sent a lava fountain shooting roughly 165 feet (50 meters) into the air.

An hour after the eruption began, an earthquake rocked the island. USGS sensors put it at a magnitude of 4.4 on the Richter scale, which sent shakes across the Big Island. At least seven small earthquakes preceded the eruption, measuring between magnitude 2.5 to 2.7, sending a warning to officials something was afoot.

Hawaii county’s Civil Defense Agency has ordered all residents to stay inside their homes to avoid exposure to ash, which can irritate eyes and lungs. The National Weather service expects the southwest part of the Big Island will see ash fall, with the greatest risk in the communities of Pahala, Wood Valley, Naalehu, and Ocean View. For now, the lava remains contained in the crater, though, so at least there’s that.

The eruption at Kīlauea captured on a thermal camera. The first image is from 9:20 p.m. HST. Approximately 10 minutes prior to the start of the eruption, and the final image was taken at 1:06 a.m. HST on Dec. 20.
Image: USGS

The volcano last erupted in 2018, when it not only spewed lava and hot ash but also huge ballistic rocks and freaky blue flames while creating its own weather. That eruption lasted for weeks, and buried large portions of neighborhoods such as Leilani Estates in the volcano’s East Rift Zone where the eruption was centered. Lava even reached the ocean, reshaping the contours of the island.


Since that 2018 terror, Kīlauea has seen regular small earthquakes beneath its caldera and upper rift zone, probably caused by the intrusion of magma. In recent months, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said those earthquakes began taking place more frequently. It’s unclear if the current eruption will follow the same course as the 2018 one.

You can watch a livestream of the eruption here.

This is a developing story and will be updated.


Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.