Dramatic Developments at Kilauea Volcano
Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii has experienced its first explosive eruption in more than 80 years and is now spewing noxious gas at 10 times the normal rate. John Eichelberger, head of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, fills us in on the situation.
Welcome! And thanks for listening to the USGS CoreCast. I'm Clarice Nassif Ransom. There's historic change in eruptive activity underway at Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. Today, I'm here with Dr. John Eichelberger, head of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, to discuss what's happening. Thank you for joining us today, John.
Well thank you for asking me Clarice.
You're welcome. Tell us a little bit about what's going on at Kilauea.
Well, Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, has just undergone a dramatic change in behavior. Normally, Kilauea puts out lava and it's been doing that for over 25 years now-a remarkably long eruption.
But very suddenly in the early hours of March 19th, there was an explosion in the central crater, and since that time, it's been omitting ash, which is something that it doesn't normally do.
Is this eruption posing any danger to people or property?
Well it is. Actually, the biggest danger is from the gas, primarily sulfur dioxide, which is being emitted at a rate 10 times normal: about 2,000 tons per day. And this is a toxic gas; it damages people's lungs, and plants. It caused the National Park in which Kilauea is located to close the area downwind from the crater, which is fortunate, and therefore nobody was there when the explosion occurred.
And Hawaii is a place where the wind normally blows from the same direction all the time, which is fortunate unless you happen to be downwind. Downwind of Kilauea, there are not very many people, but only 2 miles from the active vent is the main buildings of the National Park, and 3 miles from the main vent is the village of Volcano.
So if the wind changes, and therefore the hazard is a matter not just of what the volcano is doing but what the weather is . . . if the wind changes, it might be necessary to evacuate those areas.
And how will our science help emergency responders allow the public to know what to do?
They will know because the observatory can tell them what the concentration of gas is in the plume coming out of the volcano. And the Weather Service can tell them when the wind is going to shift the plume into inhabited areas.
Right now, it's happening at 10 times normal?
The gas release is 10 times normal. And the ash is also a problem, but it's not going up to high levels, so it's only a hazard to aircraft close in to the volcano. Consequently, the Park Service closed the airspace near the volcano to the normally heavy tourist traffic.
What's the USGS doing to respond to this volcano eruption?
Well, our job is to give the civil defense community, the emergency responders, the very best information we possibly can about what the volcano is doing and what it's likely to do in the future. We don't ourselves decide on things like evacuations or other measures to be taken, but our job is to provide the best information that becomes the basis for those kinds of decisions.
And we also take it very seriously to provide as much information as we can to the public. So virtually everything we know is made available to the public immediately on the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Web site, which is hvo.wr.usgs.gov, including very interesting live webcam views of the current activity.
I think we can be very proud of this team at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at Kilauea. They are using the very best instruments and techniques available. When those aren't available within the observatory, they draw on some excellent people in the university community there in Hawaii. So the work that's being done is the state of the art.
We don't know everything about how these volcanoes behave and particularly now that the volcano is behaving in a strange way, it's even more difficult. But certainly, the people who will make the public safety decisions will indeed have the best information possible.
I know you said that this is historic: Can you tell me a little bit about why you're calling this historic?
Well, it's historic because it's such a dramatic change from normal behavior of the volcano. We don't normally get ash production. This is kind of a textbook, quiet lava-producing volcano. So to suddenly have ash production from the central vent of the volcano is really a very interesting change, and it challenges our understanding of how this volcano works.
The thinking right now, because the volcano is not swelling and the summit area, is that we probably aren't going into a phase of more vigorous activity.
When was the last time a similar situation happened at Kilauea Volcano?
Well, the last explosive activity there, which was much bigger than what's occurring now, was in 1924. And you may have seen pictures at the park or at Volcano House of the explosions that occurred then.
In fact there's a memorable picture of a wedding party assembled in front of the eruption column. We haven't seen anything of that scale yet nor will there be any wedding parties standing by the eruption column, if it does occur.
So did the marriage last? [laughter]
I don't know. [laughter]
Well thank you, John. And thanks to all of you for listening to this episode of CoreCast. CoreCast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Until next time, I'm Clarice Nassif Ransom.
"Naughty Hula Eyes" by Andy Iona
Mentioned in this episode:
- USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
- USGS Volcano Hazards Program
- Webcam views of the crater
- Photos of the recent eruption of Kilauea
- Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
- National Weather Service Kilauea forecast