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Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano is squirting lava and toxic gas through new cracks in the earth

The Big Island’s most active volcano is forcing hundreds to flee, though officials say only a small area is affected.

Lava flows out of one of the fissures in the Kīlauea volcano Saturday on the Big Island of Hawaii.
US Geological Survey
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Two massive new fissures opened up on Hawaii’s Big Island on Monday as the Kilauea volcano continued to squirt fountains of glowing lava into the air as high as 300 feet and spew toxic gas in its ongoing eruption.

That brings the total to 12 fissures on the slopes of the volcano, whose glowing lava flows have already destroyed 35 homes and other buildings while forcing hundreds to flee. “There’s no sign of things slowing down,” Hawaii County civil defense administrator Talmadge Magno told CBS News on Sunday.

WeatherNation released this awesome time-lapse video of a slow-moving lava flow consuming a car in the Leilani Estates neighborhood over the weekend, a vivid example of the unnerving power of the volcano:

The seismic event kicked off with small cracks appearing on the volcano on May 1, according to the US Geological Survey. Then came a towering plume of pink smoke on Thursday and a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, the island’s largest in 42 years, on Friday afternoon. Now a total of 12 fissures have opened up on the volcano’s eastern side, and the glow from the lava can be seen by satellite:

Reports and images from the island show smoke billowing from cracked pavement and spurts of lava igniting trees, leaving charred scars over the landscape. Ken Rubin, a geologist a the University of Hawaii, described Saturday night’s activity as “molten spatter in pulses.”

Some parks and college campuses were closed while 1,800 of the island’s 185,000 residents have been forced to evacuate. Some roads are damaged, and there’s a chance the fissures could open further or new ones could emerge.

Officials have sought to reassure residents and tourists that the eruption is concentrated in a small region of the island and that most areas remain safe.

“We have heard from people around the world concerned about Hawaii’s welfare and want to reassure everyone that this is limited to a remote region on the slopes of Kilauea volcano,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige said in a statement. “Everywhere else in the Hawaiian Islands is not affected.”

But as the volcano continues to erupt, scientists and officials expect more tremors and more ruptures to form.

“At this time eruptive activity is increasing and is expected to continue,” the County of Hawaii’s Civil Defense Agency reported late Saturday. “All residents in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens Subdivisions have been placed on evacuation notice due to volcanic activity and smoke hazards.”

A map of current fissures in the Leilani Estates neighborhood on Hawaii’s Big Island.
A map of current fissures in the Leilani Estates neighborhood on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Hawaii Civil Defense Agency

A big concern during this eruption is the emissions of sulfur dioxide, which the Civil Defense Agency called “a threat to all who become exposed.” The colorless gas with a pungent odor is often ejected in massive quantities during a volcanic eruption. At ground level, it can make breathing difficult. Released into the atmosphere, it can change the temperature of the planet.

The Hawaii Department of Health warned that no masks sold in stores protect against volcanic gases.

The eruption has already triggered hundreds of smaller earthquakes, and scientists have highlighted some warning signs to look out for ahead of new fissures.

“Locations cannot be forecast with certainty, but new outbreaks thus far have been preceded by ground cracking, then strong steam and volcanic gas release,” according to the US Geological Survey. “Areas uprift and downrift of the current fissure zone are the most likely to see further outbreaks.”

Eruptions and all they bring with them are nothing new to Hawaii, a volcanic archipelago perched in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The epicenter of the recent big earthquake triggered by the eruption is very close to the epicenter of a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck in 1975, the largest Hawaiian earthquake on record, triggering a tsunami.

Kilauea is the Big Island’s youngest and feistiest volcano, having experienced more than 30 eruptions since 1952, and has been continuously erupting at low levels since 1983.

For a long time, scientists thought the Kilauea volcano was just a small satellite of its much larger neighbor, Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world. But more recent findings revealed that Kilauea has its own magma plumbing system extending nearly 40 miles below the earth’s surface.

In the past two decades, the island’s population has increased and there’s been more development in areas vulnerable to lava flows. Much of the town of Kalapana was lost to Kilauea’s lava in the early ’90s.

Unlike many of the steep-sided volcanoes along the edge of the Pacific Rim, Kilauea is a shield volcano with long, gradually sloping sides. This has allowed people to build homes and businesses along its flanks. But as geologist Brian Olson pointed out on Twitter, the decision to allow so much construction so near it now “seems at best ignorant and at worst negligent.”

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