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Stanford researchers use Kilauea crystals to understand hidden volcano behavior

A lava fountain during the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki.
Image credit: USGS
Dec 4 2020
Fellow, Research, Stanford, Students

Scientists striving to understand how and when volcanoes might erupt face a challenge: many of the processes take place deep underground in lava tubes churning with dangerous molten Earth. Upon eruption, any subterranean markers that could have offered clues leading up to a blast are often destroyed.

But by leveraging observations of tiny crystals of the mineral olivine formed during a violent eruption that took place in Hawaii more than half a century ago, Stanford University researchers have found a way to test computer models of magma flow, which they say could reveal fresh insights about past eruptions and possibly help predict future ones.

“We can actually infer quantitative attributes of the flow prior to eruption from this crystal data and learn about the processes that led to the eruption without drilling into the volcano,” said Jenny Suckale, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “That to me is the Holy Grail in volcanology.”

The millimeter-sized crystals were discovered entombed in lava after the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. An analysis of the crystals revealed they were oriented in an odd, but surprisingly consistent pattern, which the Stanford researchers hypothesized was formed by a wave within the subsurface magma that affected the direction of the crystals in the flow. They simulated this physical process for the first time in a study published in Science Advances Dec. 4.

Study lead author, Michelle DiBenedetto, is a 2014 SGF fellow and 2017 Lieberman fellow.

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