Rocks hurled from Kilauea crater as eruption threat continues

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PAHALA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) –

Kilauea’s summit crater spit out large rocks and thick emissions of ash Wednesday, raising concerns that violent, steam-driven eruptions could soon follow.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said rocks up to 2 feet wide hurled from Halemaumau Crater on Wednesday “reflect the most energetic explosions yet observed and could reflect the onset of steam-driven explosive activity. Additional such explosions are expected and could be more powerful.”

Scientists have warned that eruptions at the summit could send heavy ashfall across communities near the summit and toss boulders “the size of cows” as far as a half a mile. Given the threat, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed, and civil defense officials are urging those who live near the crater to remain vigilant.

The news comes amid worsening air quality conditions on the Big Island, and as civil defense authorities continue to respond to Kilauea’s ongoing eruptions in lower Puna, which have forced thousands from their homes and destroyed at least 37 structures.

  • Forecasters are warning residents that ashfall could once again drift downwind Wednesday, raining down across portions of the Ka’u District, Puna, and North and South Hilo.
  • Thick vog (volcanic haze) is also impacting parts of the island, and in Hilo, residents are reporting the smell of rotten eggs, which indicates higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide in the air. Authorities said the thicker vog posed no immediate threat, but that officials would continue to monitor the situation.
  • And more than 20 miles away in lower Puna, along Kilauea’s east rift zone, hazardous fumes and lava are continuing to pour from active fissures. In the southeast area of the Lanipuna Gardens subdivision and surrounding farm lots, the air quality level remains at condition “red,” which means anyone in the area is in immediate danger. Mandatory evacuation orders remain in place for communities along with neighboring Leilani Estates.

On Tuesday, thick, dark columns of ash poured from Halemaumau Crater, extending up to 12,000 feet above sea level and dropping ash as far as 18 miles downwind.

Dramatic images showed large plumes looming over the Volcano Golf Course. In Pahala, residents reported heavy vog and significant ashfall.

Emissions waxed and waned overnight, and authorities were able to cancel an ashfall advisory about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. Forecasters warned, however, light ashfall and hazardous air conditions will continue.

Bob Ballard, of the National Weather Service, said the breezy trade winds on Tuesday were pushing the ash and plume onto the southwest region, but light winds on Wednesday will likely change where the ash goes.

“It depends on how big the explosive eruption is, if there is one,” he said. “We’ll be keeping an eye on that to see how tall it gets because winds will change with height.”

Scientists have been warning residents for days about the threat of explosive, steam-induced eruptions at the summit crater.

The last time such eruptions happened was nearly a century ago, when shooting debris killed one and left a layer of ash over homes and cars.

In 1924, explosive events at the summit lasted for two and a half weeks and ash may have reached as high as 20,000 feet above sea level. Small amounts of fine ash fell as far as lower Puna and Waiohinu.

Researchers don’t know when the explosive activity will occur, how large the explosions could be or how long they’d last.

But they warn that as fissures continue to open in Puna and lava travels downslope toward the sea, the chance for “explosive eruptions” at Halemaumau Crater on the summit of the volcano will continue to rise.

That’s because a lava lake at the summit is dropping. When it hits the level of the water table beneath the Kilauea caldera, the influx of water into the conduit could trigger steam-driven eruptions, geologists said.

“If an explosion happens, there’s a risk at all scales. If you’re near the crater within a half a mile or so, then you would be subject to a bombardment by ballistic blocks weighing as much as 10 or 12 tons,” said Don Swanson, of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

“If you’re within several miles of the summit of the volcano, of the lava lake, then you would be subject to falls of marble sized rocks, ash, finer grain material. and if you’re beyond that say you’re 10 miles, 15, 20 downwind, you could experience fine ash floating from the sky like snow.”

The plumes that were emitting from the crater through Tuesday weren’t from an eruption, however. Geologists say they were likely being created by rockfalls in the crater and gas explosions, though there’s no way to confirm that.

On Monday, when the plume was much less intense, residents in Ka’u said the increased activity at the summit already had them feeling sick. Several residents have reported having headaches, sore throats, and watery eyes as a result of ashfall.

“I do have neighbors and friends and family and it has created more problems for them,” said Jessie Marques, a Pahala resident. “Now they tend to stay indoors … it has created a breathing problem for them.”

Marques, who has asthma, says that the heightened sulfur dioxide levels and ash particles has complicated her health.

“I have asthma and (the volcanic activity) has exacerbated it, but I’m taking more of my medication and I’m taking care,” Marques said.

Residents also reported ash coating their cars, decks and buildings as a result of recent volcanic activity. County officials went door-to-door Monday to hand out information about the ashfall and ways for residents to protect themselves from hazardous fumes and ash.

“There was really a thick layer of dust on our cars, and on our decks, and such so you can see and feel it,” Marques added. “It’s like black, grimy soot.”

This story will be updated.

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