A crater in the summit of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano exploded early Thursday morning, shooting ash 30,000 feet into the air and creating a large cloud that scientists say could drift up to 30 miles away.
It’s just the latest development in the ongoing eruption of the volcano, which shows no signs of slowing down.
Yesterday, the Big Island’s youngest and rowdiest volcano shot out “dense ballistic blocks” up to 2 feet across, quaked at its summit, and released another ash cloud miles into the sky, 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.
Kilauea has been erupting continuously at low levels since 1983. But its activity ramped up dramatically earlier this month, triggering the largest earthquake Hawaii has felt in nearly 40 years and opening up at least 20 fissures spewing red-hot lava hundreds of feet into the air.
“At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent,” USGS said Thursday. The National Weather Service has issued an ashfall advisory until noon Hawaii time.
With lava oozing through forests, cracking roads, destroying dozens of homes, and engulfing cars, thousands have been forced to evacuate while others are still going about their lives as normal. Health officials are also warning that toxic volcanic gases like sulfur dioxide are also accumulating, posing an invisible threat. These gases can be harmful to breathe, especially for people already suffering from asthma and emphysema.
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.
In particular, NASA is paying close attention to the sulfur dioxide emanating from the volcano.
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.
So far, we’re definitely seeing a major uptick in sulfur dioxide emissions, which provided a warning signal for the current exacerbation, but we aren’t seeing planet-changing amounts of the stuff from the current Kilauea eruption.
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. 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:
There remains the possibility that the current eruption will get worse. For now, USGS is warning people in the region: “If ash is falling, the best course of action is to stay indoors and close the windows. Limit driving because ash reduces visibility and can make for slippery driving conditions.”