Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 56, Issue 5, pp 343–360 | Cite as

Development of lava tubes in the light of observations at Mauna Ulu, Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii

  • Donald W. Peterson
  • Robin T. Holcomb
  • Robert I. Tilling
  • Robert L. Christiansen
Original Paper


During the 1969–1974 Mauna Ulu eruption on Kilauea's upper east rift zone, lava tubes were observed to develop by four principal processes: (1) flat, rooted crusts grew across streams within confined channels; (2) overflows and spatter accreted to levees to build arched roofs across streams; (3) plates of solidified crust floating downstream coalesced to form a roof; and (4) pahoehoe lobes progressively extended, fed by networks of distributaries beneath a solidified crust. Still another tube-forming process operated when pahoehoe entered the ocean; large waves would abruptly chill a crust across the entire surface of a molten stream crossing through the surf zone. These littoral lava tubes formed abruptly, in contrast to subaerial tubes, which formed gradually. All tube-forming processes were favored by low to moderate volume-rates of flow for sustained periods of time. Tubes thereby became ubiquitous within the pahoehoe flows and distributed a very large proportionof the lava that was produced during this prolonged eruption. Tubes transport lava efficiently. Once formed, the roofs of tubes insulate the active streams within, allowing the lava to retain its fluidity for a longer time than if exposed directly to ambient air temperature. Thus the flows can travel greater distances and spread over wider areas. Even though supply rates during most of 1970–1974 were moderate, ranging from 1 to 5 m3/s, large tube systems conducted lava as far as the coast, 12–13 km distant, where they fed extensive pahoehoe fields on the coastal flats. Some flows entered the sea to build lava deltas and add new land to the island. The largest and most efficient tubes developed during periods of sustained extrusion, when new lava was being supplied at nearly constant rates. Tubes can play a major role in building volcanic edifices with gentle slopes because they can deliver a substantial fraction of lava erupted at low to moderate rates to sites far down the flank of a volcano. We conclude, therefore, that the tendency of active pahoehoe flows to form lava tubes is a significant factor in producing the common shield morphology of basaltic volcanoes.

Key words

lava tubes lava flows shield volcanoes littoral lava tubes basalt Mauna Ulu Kilauea 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald W. Peterson
    • 1
  • Robin T. Holcomb
    • 2
  • Robert I. Tilling
    • 1
  • Robert L. Christiansen
    • 1
  1. 1.US Geological SurveyMenlo ParkUSA
  2. 2.US Geological Survey, c/o School of Oceanography WB-10University of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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