Kilauea Volcano

Kilauea is one of the planet’s most active volcanoes, and it’s the youngest — about 600,000 years old — of five volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Along with nearby Mauna Kea, Kilauea is still adding to the island’s topography, and its unique character, geologic importance and dramatic history only increase its allure.

Kilauea Geological and Geographical Details

Situated at the southeastern edge of a curving volcanic band, Kilauea was once believed to be a satellite of Mauna Kea, its much larger neighbor. However, geologists have determined that Kilauea’s magma vent and conduit system is completely separate. Known as a shield volcano of basalt composition, Kilauea has erupted in alternating cycles that are either explosive — dominated by tephra — or effusive — dominated by lava flow — for the past 2,500 years.

At its highest point, Kilauea is 4,190 feet above sea level. Measuring 1.86 miles in length by 3.11 miles in width, the caldera’s summit is 541 feet deep. Kilauea comprises 564 square miles, which is about 14% of the island’s land area.

How to Get There

The nearest airport is in Hilo, Hawaii, while the city closest to the Kilauea volcano is Kalapana.

Volcanic Eruptions

Kīlauea pele erupting at night filling the sky with fire and smoke

According to geologists, 90% of Kilauea’s surface is covered by lava flows that are less than 1,000 years old, while about 20% of those flows are younger than 200 years. Meanwhile, researchers say that the oldest above-sea-level lava flows, located at the central part of the volcano’s south flank, date to between 210,000 and 280,000 years ago when they first erupted onto the floor of the ocean.

Throughout its history, Kilauea has rained destruction on the nearby settlements and towns, killing thousands.

  • Pyroclastic surges rained down Kilauea’s western summit area in a series of violent volcanic explosions in 1790. This was considered the deadliest eruption at that time, with human deaths estimated at more than 400 to perhaps thousands.
  • In 1924, on the floor of Kilauea’s summit caldera and within the Halemaumau crater, an explosive volcanic eruption occurred that hurled dense, multiton rocks more than half a mile from the crater.
  • In 1990, Kilauea’s current eruption period began with lava flooding the nearby village of Kalapana, destroying in excess of 900 homes during a nine-month period.
  • Since the start of the most recent long-duration eruptions in 1983, continuing through 2018, Kilauea has produced a cubic mile of lava and reshaped 48 square miles of land.
  • After the April 2018 eruption, the crater’s deepest portion is now some 938 feet beneath its previous floor.

Both Kilauea and Mauna Kea are currently ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program at a very high threat potential.

Why is Kilauea Historically Significant?

Hawaiian legend is rich with accounts of Pele, revered as the goddess of lightning, fire, volcanoes and wind, who makes her home in the Halema’umu’u crater of Kilauea. Indeed, the profuse volcanic eruptions Kilauea produces are said to be the work of the angry goddess. The name Kilauea essentially means great spreading and spewing in Hawaiian, no doubt a reference to the frequent flows of lava during the volcano’s eruptions.

Much of Kilauea’s research takes place at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which was founded by Thomas Jagger in 1912 and is located at the volcano’s rim. President Woodrow Wilson created the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1916, and Kilauea was later designated a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

In 1823, when a European missionary, Rev. William Ellis, viewed the summit, Kilauea had already been erupting for hundreds of thousands of years. This phenomenon shows no signs of abating, making the Kilauea volcano a much-monitored world hotspot that will continue to pose significant threats to the island’s people and property.