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What the Kilauea volcano’s rowdy eruption looks like from above

Blue flames, lava, laze, vog, and ash: Kilauea is still extremely active.

An ash plume rises from a burning forest in the ongoing eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii on May 22.
USGS /Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Small explosions rocked the summit of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano on Wednesday while blue flames rippled and lava continued to spew from nearly two dozen fissures in the ongoing eruption on the Big Island that’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Kilauea has been erupting continuously at low levels since 1983. But activity ramped up dramatically three weeks ago, triggering the largest earthquake Hawaii has felt in nearly 40 years and opening up a total of 22 fissures spewing red-hot lava. Though the lava has only oozed and spattered onto a small area of the island, at least 44 structures have been damaged, thousands of residents are affected by toxic air from the volcano’s sulfur dioxide emissions, and one person has been injured so far by a “lava bomb.”

Last week, the Big Island’s youngest and rowdiest volcano shot out “dense ballistic blocks” up to 2 feet across, quaked at its summit, and released several ash clouds, according to the US Geological Survey. The ash billowed so high that the Hawaii Volcano Observatory issued a red alert for aircraft to avoid the area for fear of damage to engines.

A Civil Air Patrol flight showing the ash plume from Kilauea volcano reaching as high as 11,000 feet on May 15, 2018.
A Civil Air Patrol flight showing the ash plume from Kilauea volcano reaching as high as 11,000 feet on May 15, 2018.
US Geological Survey

“At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles very near the vent,” USGS said Wednesday. The agency is also warning about the health risks of “laze,” or plumes that form when lava hits the ocean.

“The interaction sends hydrochloric acid and steam with fine glass particles into the air,” USGS said. “Laze drifts with the wind and can be a health hazard for people downwind. Laze is irritating to the lungs, eyes and skin.”

An ash plume rises from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island on May 15, 2018.
An ash plume rises from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island on May 15, 2018.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Scientists are also watching the eruption from farther away to get some insight into how the ash and sulfur dioxide emissions are affecting the area around it. Using satellites, NASA has tracked how the eruption has played out so far.

Ash plume rising from Kilauea volcano on May 14, 2018
Ash plume rising from Kilauea volcano on May 14, 2018.
NASA Earth Observatory

In particular, NASA is paying close attention to the sulfur dioxide emanating from the volcano.

Sulfur dioxide plumes rising from a fissure created by Kilauea volcano on May 16, 2018
Sulfur dioxide and ash plumes rising from a fissure created by Kilauea volcano on May 16, 2018.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

High in the stratosphere, sulfur dioxide reacts with moisture to create sulfuric acid, creating an aerosol that reflects sunlight back into space. A massive volcanic eruption, like the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, can inject enough sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to measurably cool the whole planet.

Sulfur dioxide emissions from Kilauea volcano
Sulfur dioxide emissions from Kilauea volcano.
NASA Earth Observatory

So far, we’re definitely seeing a major uptick in sulfur dioxide emissions, but we aren’t seeing planet-changing amounts of the stuff from the current Kilauea eruption.

Sulfur dioxide emissions from Kilauea volcano spiked  in early May.
Sulfur dioxide emissions from Kilauea volcano spiked in early May.
NASA Earth Observatory

Health officials on the Big Island have issued a sulfur dioxide advisory as winds spread the gas, though air quality remains good on most of the island so far. But officials caution that the eruption could become more explosive at any time, as lava levels have fallen at one of Kilauea’s craters, and there are still potential health hazards from vog — volcanic fog formed when erupted gases react with moisture in the air — and the laze. Air currents can then smear vog and other toxic gases over a wide area, as you can see in this simulation of wind and sulfur dioxide across Hawaii:

Air currents spreading sulfur dioxide from the Kilauea volcano on May 17, 2018.
Air currents spreading sulfur dioxide from the Kilauea volcano on May 17, 2018.
Earth Wind Map

There also remains the possibility that the current eruption will get worse. “Due to the current activity, residents down rift should be prepared to voluntarily evacuate at a moment’s notice,” the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said Thursday.

For more on the Kilauea eruption and other historic volcanic events, listen to the May 16 episode of Today, Explained.