Large boulders 2 metres across and weighing 10 tonnes could soon begin blasting out from Kilauea, the erupting volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. But the biggest imminent threat to residents could arise if the volcano starts spewing ash to heights of 6000 metres or more.
The conditions are similar to those when Kilauea last erupted in 1924, which showered the island in ash for several months. “That’s what I would guess will happen next,” said Don Swanson of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, in a press conference video issued on 9 May.
Kilauea has been unusually active since late April. On 30 April, the floor of the lava lake at the volcano’s summit collapsed.
The lava has been draining ever since. By 9 May, and following a 6.9-magnitude earthquake on 3 May, it had already plunged almost 300 metres into the vertical shaft below. The lava is now below the level of water-saturated rock at 600 metres above sea level. “Since the earthquake, the lava lake has dropped in a very steady manner, at 2.2 metres per hour,” said Swanson.
Because the lava has sunk so low, water is now draining into the empty shaft that it previously occupied. The walls of the crater are red hot, so the water is instantly turning to steam, which is now bellowing in white clouds from the volcano summit.
What happens next is difficult to predict, said Swanson. But there could be explosions. If large rocks fall from the unstable walls of the shaft, they could block it, in which case pressure from steam will build up underneath and cause an explosion.
Once the “plug” is blown out, the steam can escape again unimpeded, until the plug is restored by rock falls.
The result would be a series of explosions followed by hiatuses. That’s what happened in 1924: there were 60 explosions over the course of four months or so.
Boulders and ash
Any explosion can produce a variety of “ejecta”, said Swanson. “You can get rocks ejected like cannonballs, weighing up to 10 tonnes and 2 [metres] in diameter,” he said.
The good news is that these boulders should fall within about a kilometre of the summit. This area is deserted. Smaller rocks the size of softballs could impact a bit further away, albeit still not far enough to reach people’s homes. But tinier fragments a fraction of an inch wide could reach peopled areas. “They would sting, but not be lethal,” says Swanson.
The most important hazard is fine ash, which can block thoroughfares and accumulate on buildings. In 1924, ash landed on railway tracks and made them too slippery for trains to run on safely.
“It’s a nuisance, especially if it goes on for several weeks,” said Tina Neal of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at the press conference. “I’ve been in many ash falls myself, and the most difficult bit is keeping it out of your eyes.”
Meanwhile, lava fountains and steam continue to spew copiously from cracks on the island, reaching heights of 30 metres. By Monday, there were 19 fissures in total. So far, more than 30 properties have been destroyed by lava, and 2000 residents remain evacuated.