Crystals can help reveal the Kilauea Volcano’s hidden behavior

Located on the Big Island of Hawai’i, Kīlauea Volcano threatens hundreds of homes and millions of dollars in properties.

To understand the flow conditions before and during an eruption, Stanford scientists used millimeter-sized crystals obtained from the 1959 Kilauea eruption. After analyzing the crystals, scientists discovered that the crystals were oriented in a strange but surprisingly consistent pattern.

Scientists theorized that the crystals were formed by a wave in the underground magma that affected the direction of flow of the crystals.

Jenny Suckale, an assistant professor of geophysics at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), said: “I’ve always suspected that these crystals are much more interesting and important than we think.”

When a volcano erupts, the lava reaches the surface and is shaken by the cooler atmospheric temperature, quickly trapping the naturally occurring olivine crystals and bubbles. The process is so fast that the crystals cannot grow, effectively recording what happened during the eruption.

The new simulation – based on crystal orientations from Kilauea Ik – provides a basis for understanding the flow of Kilauea’s conduit, the tubular passage through which hot magma rises underground 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 massive system.”

The group’s research shows that the strange alignment of the crystals was caused by magma immediately moving in two ways, with one flow directly onto the other, rather than pouring in one constant flow through the conduit.

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

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

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