The subaerial eruptive activity at Kīlauea Volcano (Hawai‘i) for the past 2500 yr can be divided into 3 dominantly effusive and 2 dominantly explosive periods, each lasting several centuries. The prevailing style of eruption for 60% of this time was explosive, manifested by repeated phreatic and phreatomagmatic activity in a deep summit caldera. During dominantly explosive periods, the magma supply rate to the shallow storage volume beneath the summit dropped to only a few percent of that during mainly effusive periods. The frequency and duration of explosive activity are contrary to the popular impression that Kīlauea is almost unceasingly effusive. Explosive activity apparently correlates with the presence of a caldera intersecting the water table. The decrease in magma supply rate may result in caldera collapse, because erupted or intruded magma is not replaced. Glasses with unusually high MgO, TiO2, and K2O compositions occur only in explosive tephra (and one related lava flow) and are consistent with disruption of the shallow reservoir complex during caldera formation. Kīlauea is a complex, modulated system in which melting rate, supply rate, conduit stability (in both mantle and crust), reservoir geometry, water table, and many other factors interact with one another. The hazards associated with explosive activity at Kīlauea’s summit would have major impact on local society if a future dominantly explosive period were to last several centuries. The association of lowered magma supply, caldera formation, and explosive activity might characterize other basaltic volcanoes, but has not been recognized.

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