Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the eruption began at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday in Mokuaweoweo, the summit caldera of the volcano.
U.S. Geological Survey webcams at the summit clearly showed a long fissure erupting with fountains of lava, which was spreading along the caldera floor.
The U.S. Geological Survey initially said that lava was contained to the caldera. But within two hours of the start of the eruption, residents on the Kona side of the volcano recorded images that appeared to show lava starting to flow down the mountain.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said, “All vents remain restricted to the summit area. However, lava flows i the summit region are visible from Kona. There is currently no indication of any migration of the eruption into a rift zone.”
On Twitter, the USGS said “There are some reports now that lava is overtopping the caldera to the south. We’re working to confirm those reports. But eruptive vents continue to be confined to the caldera for now.”
No evacuations have been requested, but Hawaii County opened shelters, in Ka’u at the Robert Herkes Gymnasium in Pahala, and at the Old Airport Gymnasium (Kailua Park) in Kailua-Kona after reports that residents were evacuating from the South Kona coast.
Residents at risk for Mauna Loa lava flows are being told to review preparedness plans and check with Hawaii County Civil Defense for further guidance.
Scientists said winds may carry volcanic gas, and possibly fine ash and Pele’s hair, downwind.
“Based on past events, the early stages of a Mauna Loa eruption can be very dynamic and the location and advance of lava flows can change rapidly,” the USGS said in a news release.
“If the eruption remains in Moku’āweoweo, lava flows will most likely be confined within the caldera walls,” the release said. “However, if the eruptive vents migrate outside its walls, lava flows may move rapidly downslope.”
The 13,681-foot volcano had shown increased earthquake activity in the last several weeks, leading many to believe that an eruption could happen sooner rather than later.
The last time Mauna Loa erupted was in 1984. That eruption also began within the Mokuaweoweo summit caldera, but eruptive fissures migrated rapidly down the volcano’s southwest rift zone.
Fissures eventually opened on the mountain’s northeast rift zone, sending lava flows snaking toward the Hilo area. However, none of the flows reached the outskirts of Hilo by the time the eruption ended, about 20 days after it began.
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The USGS said it is working closely with its emergency management partners and will conduct aerial surveys as soon as possible to get further information on the eruption and possible hazards. However, those surveys may be hampered by weather conditions, as the summit area is under a winter weather advisory through Monday morning. [NBC15]