The Wild 35-Year History of Hawaii’s Constantly Erupting Volcano


Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been spewing lava into residential neighborhoods in the southeastern corner of the Big Island since it erupted on Thursday, May 3, destroying 26 homes. Like many other Hawaiian volcanoes, Kilauea is a shield volcano that emits fluid basalt lava and is defined by its broad dome shape, rather than a steep peak, like Washington’s Mount St. Helens.

But this week’s activity is just one of 61 recorded eruptions in the volcano’s cycle. In fact, Kilauea has been erupting on a continuous basis since 1983, making it the longest continuously erupting volcano in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here’s a look at how it all started and the destruction it has inflicted upon Hawaii’s residents over the last 35 years.


On January 3, 1983, eruptions began on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone creating a 4-mile-long fissure on the Big Island’s southeastern corner. Within a few months, the eruptions focused on a single vent, and eventually, lava fountains created a cinder-and-spatter cone called Pu’u’ O’o, the USGS says.

Hawaii Volcano Eruption 1983
Kilauea Volcano spews molten rock up to 20 feet in the air on January 14, 1983.

That July, the lava flows spouting from Pu’u O’o made their way to the Royal Gardens subdivision where it destroyed 16 houses and forced people to abandoned the neighborhood. The last home in Royal Gardens was finally abandoned in 2012 when a 61-year-old named Jack Thompson had to be airlifted out by helicopter after lava finally reached his home.


In the meantime, Kilauea’s lava fountains ended and the eruption entered a period of continuous effusive—as opposed to explosive—lava flow from a new vent called Kupaianaha.

Lava from Kupaianaha made its way to the ocean by cutting through the town of Kapa’ahu, destroying the visitor center at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and cutting across Highway 130.

The lava field spread and eventually made its way through the town of Kalapana in March 1990, where it destroyed more than 100 homes, plus a church and a store, by burying them under up to 80 feet of lava.

Hawaii Volcano Eruption 1990
A house in Kalapana set on fire by Kilauea’s lava flow in 1990.


Over the next 15 years, activity was diverted back to Pu’u O’o from Kupaianaha where a continuous, but quiet, the effusion of lava entered the ocean, adding about 418 acres of land to Hawaii’s Big Island.

Hawaii volcano eruption 2004
Lava from Kilauea enters the Pacific Ocean in 2004.


Then in 2007, lava came within 100 feet of overflowing the Pu’u O’o crater, and new fissures erupted opened to the northeast of the cone. Later in 2010 and 2011, the lava flows ended up destroying more homes that had been built on top of the previous lava flows in Kalapana.


Hawaii Volcano Eruption 2014
Lava from Kilauea flows across the ground on November 7, 2014 in Pahoa, Hawaii.

While there were some new lava breakouts from 2011 through 2013, major fissures erupted on the eastern side of Pu’u O’o in June 2014, sending lava into the town of Pahoa over the following months. The scenes of destruction from 2014 are eerily similar to the recent eruption and the carnage it has spread in Leilani Gardens.

As of now, Kilauea’s lava flows show no signs of ending anytime soon.


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