Explosions at Kilauea’s Summit Have Intensified

By Erik Klemetti | May 15, 2018 5:22 pm
The ash and steam plume from Kilauea's Halema'uma'u caldera at the summit, seen on May 15, 2018. Image: USGS/HVO.

The ash and steam plume from Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u caldera at the summit, seen on May 15, 2018. Image: USGS/HVO.

It seems like every day since the Leilani Estates eruption began, Kilauea has thrown something new at the people of Hawaii.  The new fissure 17 that opened over the weekend has produced a lava flow that has traveled more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles). However, the news today now comes from the summit of Kilauea in the Halema’uma’u caldera, where the explosive eruptions (see above) have now gotten more intense and are likely to continue.

Last week, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geoscientists warned that explosive eruptions at the summit could become larger than we have seen in almost a century now that the lava lake level has dropped below the water table. Today, the summit released a number of ash-rich plumes (see above) that reached ~1-1.2 kilometers (3,000-4,000 feet) over the volcano, spreading ash across Ka’u Desert. The plume is an intermittent mix of brown volcanic ash and white steam (formed from the water seeping into the lava lake). The Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) shows the ash drifting to the southwest towards Southpoint.

UPDATE 7:40 PM ET May 15: The USGS has raised the aviation warning status at Kilauea to Red. In their latest update: “Ashfall and vog (volcanic air pollution) has been reported in Pahala, about 18 miles (27 km) downwind. NWS radar and pilot reports indicate the top of the ash cloud is as high as 10,000 to 12,000 feet (3-3.6 km) above sea level, but this may be expected to vary depending on the vigor of activity and wind conditions.” Check out the brief video below of the dark grey plume from the volcano.

So far, the new explosive eruptions has not any air travel to Hilo or Kona, but that could change in the wind directions change. The real hazard for ash is for people near the summit where the potential to inhale ash is higher. With ash, it is vital to cover your mouth and nose with a mask or damp cloth to keep from breathing is what is tiny volcanic glass shards.

Meanwhile, in the lower East Rift zone, we may be up to 20 fissures opened since the eruption began. The latest is by Lanipuna Gardens, just to the east of Leilani Estates. Sulfur dioxide emissions remain high as well, so Hawaiian officials continue to warn people to avoid the area. All these event mean that more than 2,000 people may need to be evacuated as lava flows encroach on more homes and could potentially block escape routes.

One thing to note: hats off to the scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory! So far, they have tackled the eruption with incredible success. As I have mentioned, when I was on Kilauea a few months ago, HVO scientists said they expected that a new eruption might be brewing on the East Rift zone based on all the inflation they were observing at the summit and at Pu’u O’o. They correctly noted that inflation and earthquakes prior to the start of the eruption suggested that the eruption could be in the lower East Rift zone past Pu’u O’o. They warned that seismicity and deformation data pointed to the eruption moving to the east of Leilani Estates — which it did this weekend. They also told us that more explosive eruptions could start happening at the summit, and sure enough the volcano started puffing away at Halema’uma’u.

Forecasting volcanic eruptions is challenging, but professional actions of the HVO staff has meant that so far, we have seen no injuries or deaths due to the eruption. People have had warning to evacuate long before the hazard was extreme. The combined efforts of land-based monitoring like seismometers and GPS, satellite-borne data like gas emissions and deformation and real-time views from webcams all meant that these geoscientists to make accurate projections of the potential events that could follow. If anything, it is a testament to modern volcanology and how much we need to have capabilities to monitor all volcanoes in the U.S., so when volcanoes like Hood in Oregon or Rainier in Washington awaken again, we can be just as ready.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.

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