Please Enjoy Some Lava at Night From Space

False color image of lava erupting from Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone.
Gif: NASA Earth Observatory

We’ve had no shortage of incredible imagery of Kilauea’s eruption over the past three weeks. But while aerial footage is perhaps best for conveying the epic fury of lava fountains, images from space offer a different perspective. This one, for instance, highlights just how searingly hot the landscape is.


The false-color image was captured Wednesday night by NASA’s Landsat-8 satellite when a small break in the clouds allowed one of the imagers on board to take the temperature of the ground some 438 miles below. The image includes data collected in the shortwave infrared part of the spectrum, which our eyes cannot see, as well as visible green light.

Those streaks in the middle glowing like a red hot iron poker? That’s fresh lava, burning at approximately 1,170 degrees Celsius (2,140 degrees Fahrenheit). The purple areas surrounding it are clouds, lit from below by the molten Earth.

Images like this are a stark reminder of just how profoundly volcanic eruptions can reshape the surrounding landscape. The lava, which is oozing and fountaining out of the Earth in an approximately two mile line of fissures, is feeding massive channels that wind all the way to the ocean.

Footage of channelized lava near Fissure 22, captured by drone on the night of May 22
Gif: US Geological Survey

When that molten rock hits seawater—as Kilauea’s lava is now doing at two separate ocean entry points*—it cools, and begins the process of building new land. This is how the entire volcanic island arc of Hawaii has built up over millions of years.

On a call with reporters yesterday, U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist Wendy Stovall said that Kilauea’s activity has reached a sort of “steady state” of lava erupting on the surface at the lower East Rift Zone, along with deflation and continued explosive activity at the summit.


“The monitoring data we’re getting right now indicates we’re going to keep seeing what we’re seeing,” Stovall said, while declining to offer a timeline for how much longer the eruptive activity would continue. “If we start to see deflation around lower East Rift Zone, that could indicate to us that the magma is running out.”

* Update: A previous version of this article stated that there were three ocean entry points. While this was based on information from a press call yesterday, after publication of the article we received clarification from the US Geological Survey that today there are only two. Apparently, these things can change quickly!


Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.



I’m the sort of weirdo that reads textbooks on plate tectonics for fun. And I’ve learned more about volcanoes from reports on Kilauea’s eruption the past three weeks than I have in 20 years.

It’s a fascinating eruption.