Kilauea erupts, sending ash 30,000 feet high

By David Jacobson, Temblor

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While today’s eruption at the summit of Kilauea sent ash 30,000 feet high, no immediate damage has been reported. This is in start contrast to what is still happening to the east of Kilauea, where fissures have destroyed dozens of homes. This picture shows one of the erupting fissures near Pahoa, Hawaii, on May 6. (Picture from: Bruce Omori/EPA)


The most explosive eruption yet

At just past 4 a.m. this morning local time, Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano erupted, sending ash over 30,000 feet into the sky, and began drifting northeast. This eruption comes two days after the aviation code was elevated from orange to red. Following the eruption, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory issued an advisory that, “At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent.” While ash is expected to spread across the area close to the volcano, it does not pose a significant risk to, and residents are being advised to remain in shelters if they are in the path of the ash cloud.

This photo from a USGS webcam shows the eruption that occurred at just past 4 a.m. this morning. This eruption was the largest since increased activity began on May 3, and send an ash cloud over 30,000 feet high. (Photo from: U.S. Geological Survey/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)


Today’s eruption is the most explosive in a series of events that began on May 3. However, there are fears that an even larger eruption could take place at one of the world’s most active volcanoes in the coming weeks to months. Part of the concern is that the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea is dropping significantly. As this happens, the lava will fall below the water table, and large boulders, some the size of cars will fall into the vent, blocking the opening. Then, as lava interacts with the water, steam is created, and explosive events can occur. Such events are called phreatic eruptions. It is not known yet if today’s eruption was a phreatic event.


Likely not a life-threatening situation

Fortunately, a steam-driven event would likely not pose significant risk to life, as the largest boulders, often called bombs, would only be cast in the immediate vicinity of the crater. However, damage could still occur as marble-sized rocks could still be cast up to 10 miles. Because of this, and to protect tourists and residents, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been closed since last Thursday.

This figure from the New York Times shows what is currently happening at the summit of Kilauea and how a steam-induced (phreatic) eruption could occur. Such an event could eject volcanic bombs the size of cars. (Figure from: New York Times)


How long could this last?

Even though today’s eruption was the largest since increased activity began on May 3, it only lasted a few minutes. Nonetheless, continued emissions from the crater are still reaching 12,000 feet. For some, this is not impacting their daily lives, as people continue to play golf (see below). However, people are being advised to take caution as increased levels of volcanic air pollution (vog) have been noted around the Big Island, and there is still the possibility of a larger eruption.

For some, the volcanic activity at Kilauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island hasn’t even impacted their ability to play golf.


In addtion to the eruptions at the summit of Kilauea, smaller fissure eruptions continue in the Lower East Rift Zone. This is the area around Leilani Estates, where dozens of homes have already been consumed by slow-moving ‘a’a lava flows. In total, nearly 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, as there are now 20 fissures which have opened up. Unfortunately, if past events can help us predict what will happen, it is unlikely things will slow down for some time, as in 1955, similar activity commenced for 88 days. Therefore, it is possible that residents will continued to be rattled and subjected to continuous volcanic eruptions for some time.

This map from the USGS shows the fissures in the East Rift Zone which started opening on May 3. As of now, 20 fissures have opened, and dozens of homes have been destroyed.


New York Times
NBC News