Prehistoric and Historic Eruptions

Historic colorized postcard of an erupting volcano
Historic colorized postcard of a Mauna Loa eruption (photo taken on 11/22/1935). Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai‘i.

USGS Photo by Kenichi Maehara.


Volcanoes are alive in that they are evidence of our dynamic planet. Volcanic eruptions are expulsions of gases, rock fragments, and/or molten lava from within the Earth through a vent onto the Earth’s surface or into the atmosphere.

Eruptions may be explosive and devastate large areas via massive blasts: they can send destructive mudflows (lahars) down river valleys that travel great distances from the volcano, and their eruptive columns may extend into the stratosphere and produce ash-fall deposits that can cover large amounts of territory.

Or volcanic eruptions may be effusive, such as in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Kīlauea and Mauna Loa may emit lava through fire fountains that feed lava flows that typically travel at their leading edge at speeds of only a few miles per hour.

Volcanoes in 17 units of the National Park System have experienced prehistoric or historic eruptions. These eruptions have built cinder cones, volcanic domes, built new land on the island of Hawai‘i, and sent ash into the stratosphere that caused widespread fallout deposits of ash.

Historic eruptions have occurred at 11 volcanoes (Kīlauea, Mauna Loa, Aniakchak, Fourpeaked, Katmai, Kukak, Novarupta, Trident, Redoubt, Wrangell, and Lassen Peak) in six national parks.

Historic eruptions in national parks range from the largest eruption in the 20th century (the 1912 eruption of Katmai-Novarupta in Katmai National Park in Alaska) to relatively quiet emissions of lava flows in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park that people can safely observe with proper precautions and adequate distance.

Definitions and Notes

This page uses the following definitions for historic and prehistoric eruptions.

Historic eruptions

Verified eruptions that have occurred since 1700 CE (Common Era). The use of 1700 CE as the cutoff between historic and prehistoric eruptions follows its usage as one of the parameters that define historically active volcanoes in Alaska.

  • Cameron, C.E., Schaefer, J.R., and Ekberg, P.G., 2020, Historically active volcanoes of Alaska: Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys Miscellaneous Publication 133 v. 4, 2 sheets.

Prehistoric eruptions

Eruptions that occurred during the Holocene (e.g., in the last 11,700 years), but prior to 1700 CE.

  • Any volcanic eruption in North America during the Holocene was likely witnessed by people, see Traditional Knowledge of Prehistoric Eruptions. A distinction between historic and prehistoric eruptions is used mostly to differentiate between eruptions that have written and/or scientific records and older ones that do not.


  • As with any other type of historic event, more recent historic eruptions are better documented than older ones. For example, far more information is available about eruptions at Kīlauea in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park during the last few years than those a hundred years ago.

  • Dates or approximate dates of eruptions are provided when available.

  • The magnitude and intensity of explosive eruptions is expressed in the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) which is a scale that goes from 0 for Effusive (nonexplosive) activity such as Hawaiian eruptions to 8 for Apocalyptic super eruptions such as occurred at Yellowstone Caldera.


colorful volcanic landscape
Ka Lu‘u o ka ‘Ō‘ō cinder cone in the summit crater of Haleakalā erupted about 970 years ago. Haleakalā National Park, Hawai‘i.

USGS photo.

Haleakalā National Park: Prehistoric

Haleakalā NP is on the island of Maui, the second youngest island in the Hawaiian chain. Haleakalā Volcano, otherwise known as East Maui volcano, is considered potentially active. Its most recent eruption occurred about 400 years ago.

The most recent volcanic activity at the Haleakalā shield volcano produced lava flows, vent deposits and tephra deposits that are part of the Hāna phase of activity that began about 120,000 years ago.

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Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: Historic

1855 daguerreotype image scratched and faded view of steaming vents
This daguerreotype image, captured in 1855 by Hugo Stangenwald, is the earliest known photograph of Kīlauea Volcano. Although scratched and faded, the 161-year-old photo shows a line of steaming vents across the floor of Kīlauea's summit caldera as viewed from a location near today's Volcano House Hotel. The caldera rim is visible in the lower third of the image.

Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives (

map outline of the island of Hawaii showing recent lava flows in red covering much of the southern half of the island.
The Island of Hawai‘i with lava flows erupted in approximately the past 1,000 years shown in red. Located on the southeastern side, Kīlauea Volcano is 90% covered with young flows.

USGS image.

Hawai’i Volcanoes NP contains Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, two of the most active volcanoes on Earth.

Kīlauea has experienced multiple historic and prehistoric eruptions. It erupted nearly continuously from 1983 to 2018 from the East Rift Zone. Since then, there have been eruptions at the summit from December 2020 through May 2021, and one that started in September 2021.

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Most (90%) of the surface rocks on Kīlauea were erupted in the last 1,000 years, including about 20% that were erupted in the last 200 years.

Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984, and has erupted a total of 33 times since 1846, when eruptions started being well-documented. The 1984 eruption lasted nearly three weeks. It started at the summit and then moved to the Northeast Rift Zone, and produced ‘a‘ā lava flows. The 1984 eruption took place nearly nine years after the 1975 eruption which lasted less than a day.

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park: Prehistoric

Kaloko-Honokōhau NHP is on the flank of Hualālai, the third youngest shield volcano on the island of Hawai‘i. Hualālai is older than Mauna Loa and Kīlauea in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Lava flows in the park were emplaced between 1,500 and 10,000 years ago.

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Pu’uhonau o Honaunau National Historic Park: Prehistoric

Bedrock geology of the park consists of lava flows and volcanic deposits from Mauna Loa. Lava flows in Pu’uhonau o Honaunau National Historic Park are from three periods of volcanic activity: 5,000-3,000, 3,000-1,500, and 1,500-750 years ago. Tree molds are present in lava flows that are approximately 1,100 years old.

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Aniakchak National Monument: Historic

One of the largest eruptions of the Holocene formed Aniakchak Crater 3,660 ± 70 years ago. This caldera-forming eruption ranked at 6 (Colossal) on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) scale. It produced widespread ash fall deposits, pyroclastic flow deposits that are up to 300 ft (100 m) thick, and the approximately 6-mile (10-km) wide caldera.

Volcanic activity began in the Aniakchak region about 850,000 years ago. At least 20 explosive eruptions occurred during the Holocene prior to the caldera-forming Anaikchak II eruption. One of these eruptions, Aniakchak I, was also a 6 (Colossal) on the VEI, and may have also formed a caldera.

Post-caldera magmatic eruptions produced four lava domes, two composite cones, and a cinder cone. Phreatomagmatic eruptions formed two maars and three tuff cones (tuff cones are taller and steeper than tuff rings).

The most recent eruption at Aniakchak occurred between May and June 1931. A Cataclysmic (VEI 4) eruption formed features known as Main Crater and Doublet Crater, as well the Slag Heap lava flow in the southwestern part of the caldera. The 1931 eruption was one of the largest historic eruptions documented in Alaska.

dark tephra cone
Looking into Aniakchak Caldera across the dark tephra cone produced during the May - June 1931 eruption, one of the largest eruptions in Alaska in the last 100 years.

USGS photo by Plucinski, T. A.

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Bering Land Bridge National Preserve: Prehistoric

aerial photo a coast line with a lava flow
The Lost Jim lava flow created a delta with an area of approximately 1 square mile (3 square km) where it flowed into Imuruk Lake.

NPS photograph by Tahzay Jones.

The Lost Jim lava flow in the Imuruk Lake Volcanic Field in Bering Land Bridge NPres was erupted between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. The flow covers more than 60 square miles (155 square km)

The Imuruk Lake Volcanic Field is one of two monogenetic volcanic fields in the preserve.

Katmai National Park and Preserve: Historic

Katmai National Park contains 14 volcanoes that have had historic or prehistoric activity. Ten of these volcanoes are considered active by the USGS Alaska Volcano Observatory because they meet one of the following criteria:

black and white photo of a volcanic mountain with areas of lava flows labled with years
1960 photograph showing the lava flows of Southwest Trident that formed from 1953 to 1959.

NPS photograph by Robert Peterson, accession number KATM-399.

Five volcanoes in Katmai NP have experienced historic eruptions

  • Kukak: 1889. A questionable report of a phreatic eruption.

  • Mount Katmai: 1912. Most of the magma erupted at Novarupta during the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes eruption was stored underneath Mount Katmai, which collapsed to form a 6-mi (10-km) diameter caldera.

  • Novarupta: 1912. The vent source of the 1912 Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes eruption. The eruption lasted three days. The vent is plugged with a 1,300-ft (40-m) diameter dome.

  • Trident: 1953–1974. Intermittent eruptions produced numerous blocky lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, and ash plumes. This activity built a new volcanic edifice on this complex volcano which consists of overlapping composite volcanoes.

  • Fourpeaked: 2006. A phreatic eruption on September 17 eruption formed a 20,000 ft (6,100 m) high plume.

Katmai National Park Volcanoes

table list 15 volcanoes of Katmai and their ages, recent activity, volcano type, and general descrip
VolcanoPrehistoric or HistoricMost Recent EruptionActiveVEI (if known)Volcano TypeDescription

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    Lake Clark National Park: Historic

    snow covered volcanic peak with steam and ash cloud
    Redoubt Volcano April 16, 2009 12:00 AM. Lake Clark National Park, Alaska.

    AVO/USGS photo by Read, Cyrus.

    Lake Clark NP contains two active composite volcanoes: Iliamna Volcano and Redoubt Volcano.

    Redoubt has erupted several times since 1900, including in 1902, 1966, 1989-1990, and 2009.

    • 1902: Redoubt experienced several explosive eruptions over a period of six months with the maximum at VEI 3. The initial eruption caused a tsunami.

    • 1966: Eruptions over the course of four months caused ash fall, lahars, and glacial outburst floods. The maximum VEI was 3.

    • 1989-1990: Twenty-three major explosive eruptions (maximum VEI 3) occurred between December 1989 and April 1990. These eruptions caused widespread impacts by ash fall, and several large lahars flowed down the Drift River Valley. An airliner flew into the ash cloud and caused engine failure, but the crew managed to restart the engines. Several domes grew and were subsequently destroyed during the eruption.

    • 2009: The 2009 eruptions were similar to the previous ones in 1966 and 1989-1990. They had a maximum VEI of 3, lava domes formed in the crater and then were destroyed by explosions. The eruptions caused widespread ash-fall deposits and large lahars flowed down the Drift River Valley.

    Periodic reports of steam or ash columns above Iliamna Volcano are in the historical record, but these reports are not considered definitive. Small, shallow earthquakes have been detected beneath the summit in the 1990s.

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    Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: Historic

    twilight silhouette of mountains with rising steam plume
    Mount Wrangell Steaming. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska.

    NPS photo.

    Wrangell-St. Elias NP contains Mount Wrangell, an andesitic shield volcano. Wrangell is reported to have experienced a short explosive eruption in 1930. Reports exist for several other historic eruptions prior to 1930, but these have not been verified.

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    Contiguous United States

    Crater Lake National Park: Prehistoric

    painting of a volcanic mountain eruption
    Artist Paul Rockwood's rendition of Mount Mazama illustrates the onset of its climactic eruption 7,700 years ago.

    NPS image.

    The caldera-forming eruption that formed Crater Lake occurred 7,700 years ago. This eruption was a 7 (Mega-colossal) on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

    A number of post-caldera eruptions occurred after the climatic eruption, including the eruption that created the Wizard Island cinder cone approximately 7,200 years ago. The most recent eruption formed a small lava dome that is below the surface of the lake about 4,800 years ago.

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    Craters of the Moon National Monument: Prehistoric

    generated aerial view of large lava flows
    Craters of the Moon contains of over 60 different lava flows, the most recent of which is about 2,100 years old, and the oldest of which is 15,000 years old. Craters of the Moon is the largest young basaltic lava field in the conterminous United States.

    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center image from Landsat 7 data.

    The most recent volcanic activity in Craters of the Moon occurred 2,100 years ago. These eruptions produced the Wapi lava field and the Kings Bowl lava field.

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    Death Valley National Park: Prehistoric

    crater in a desert landscape
    Black phreatomagmatic deposits blanket the white and orange layers of metasedimentary country rock of Ubehebe Craters in Death Valley National Park.

    USGS photo.

    Ubehebe Crater is the largest of a group of maars that formed in a single eruptive episode approximately 2,100 years before present.

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    El Malpais National Monument: Prehistoric

    landscape covered with black rock from a lava flow
    Black basalt of the McCartys Lava Flow. The McCartys Lava flow is the youngest eruption in the Zuni-Bandera field. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico.

    NPS photo

    The McCarthy’s lava flow was erupted from a vent at a small cinder cone approximately 3,900 years ago. The McCarthy’s flow is one of the longest lava flows on North America. Four previous eruptions occurred in El Malpais NM during the last 60,000 years.

    Featured Article

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    Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument: Prehistoric

    pottery sherd in volcanic rock
    Ancestral Puebloan people apparently witnessed an eruption of basaltic lava in the Uinkaret Volcanic Field in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument about 1,000 years ago. Several rocks that consist of welded cinders also have pieces of broken of pottery found in them.

    Photo by Helga Teiwes courtesy of Desert Archaeology, Inc.

    The most recent eruption in the Uinkaret Volcanic Field was within Grand Canyon-Parashant NM and was the eruption of the basalt of Little Springs about 1,000 years ago. While it wasn’t an explosive eruption like at the nearby Sunset Crater Volcano, it clearly had a profound impact on the people living in the area.
    Activity in the Uinkaret Volcanic Field started approximately 3.6 million years ago.

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    Lassen Volcanic National Park: Historic

    volcanic peak with snow covered slopes
    Lassen Peak as seen from Eagle Peak during (June 2006). Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

    NPS photo.

    Lassen Volcanic NP experienced three Holocene eruptions.

    • Chaos Crags is a set of six rhyodacitic lava domes and associated pyroclastic deposits that formed in eruptions 1,100 years ago.

    • An eruptive episode in about 1666 CE formed Cinder Cone as well as a previous cinder cone and five lava flows.

    • Lassen Peak experienced a series of eruptions between 1914 and 1917 that began with a series of phreatic (steam) explosions. In May 2015, two directed blasts formed the Devastated Area and produced lahars. The May 22, 1915 eruption produced an ash column that reached a height of more than 30,000 feet (9.000 m) and also generated a pyroclastic flow. Phreatic explosions formed a new crater in 1917.

    black and white image of an erupting volcano

    Watch a YouTube video of a 1917 eruption of Lassen Peak.

    The 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens and the 1914-1917 eruption of Lassen Peak are the only two eruptions in the contiguous United States since the late 1700s when Mount Hood in Oregon was active for approximately a decade.

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    Mount Rainier National Park: Prehistoric

    Mount Rainier towers over all surrounding mountains, lit by the sunset and wreathed in clouds.
    Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

    NPS Photo.

    Mount Rainier experience multiple periods of eruptions during the Holocene. These eruptions produced lahars, tephra deposits, and possibly pyroclastic flows. The most recent eruptive episode generated one or two lahars approximately 1,000 to 1,100 years ago. A more recent lahar that occurred 500 years ago was triggered by an unknown event.
    Reports of small eruptions of Mount Rainier in the late 1800s are considered both scanty and tenuous by the US Geological Survey

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    Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: Prehistoric

    volcanic rock with impressions of ears of corn on the surface
    Corn imprints in pieces of volcanic rock from the eruption from Sunset Crater Volcano indicates that people interacted with active volcanic features during the eruption. These “cornrocks” likely were produced by deliberately placing corn around a hornito or spatter cone.

    Photo by Helga Teiwes courtesy of Desert Archaeology, Inc.

    Sunset Crater Volcano erupted in 1085 CE in the most recent eruption in the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The Sunset Crater eruption was unusually vigorous for a cinder cone, as it was Sub-Plinian with a VEI of 4. The Sunset Crater eruption lasted at most a few years. The eruption had a profound impact on the ancestral Puebloan people living in the area.

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    Parks with Historic Eruptions

    Parks with Prehistoric Eruptions

    Last updated: April 14, 2023