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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 20, 2008

Kilauea eruption blasts rocks across landscape

Volcano stirring
Activity at Big Island's Kilauea is heightening as the eruption of the island's youngest volcano entered a new phase. Read our stories, see more photos, and see video.

Photo gallery: Kilauea volcano blasts boulders

By Dave Dondoneau
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Rocks ejected by the explosion dug impact craters when they hit. Finer-grained material was blown away during the impact.

U.S. Geologic Service photo

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Most of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, including most of its popular sites and facilities, remains open. Here's what was closed yesterday:

  • Crater Rim Drive from Kilauea Military Camp to Jaggar Museum.

  • Crater Rim Trail, including Kilauea Overlook, from Kilauea Military Camp to Jaggar Museum.

    These areas, closed on Feb. 20, remain closed:

  • Crater Rim Drive just beyond Jaggar Museum, south to Chain of Craters Road, is closed to all visitor activity.

  • Crater Rim Trail from Jaggar Museum parking lot south to Chain of Craters Road.

  • All trails leading to Halema'uma'u Crater, including those from Byron Ledge, 'Iliahi (Sandalwood) Trail and Ka'u Desert Trail.

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    The most significant Kilauea eruption ever documented may have altered Hawai'i's history, according to records at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

    Kamehameha I, before becoming king and uniting the Islands, was locked in an indecisive war with his rival, Keoua.

    In 1790, a sudden eruption of searingly hot ash and gas exploded out of Kilauea as a large group of Keoua's warriors and their families passed nearby. At least 80 and perhaps hundreds of people were killed in the deadliest historical eruption to occur in what is now the United States.

    That disaster helped tip the rivalry in Kamehameha's favor.

    The most recent explosive eruptions before yesterday's were in 1924 and were much bigger than the latest event. Those explosions killed a photographer, who ventured too close and was hit by falling rocks and hot mud.

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    The first explosive eruption at Kilauea volcano in almost a century scattered boulders and smaller rocks over 75 acres of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in the middle of the night when no one was around.

    Falling rocks damaged the popular Halema'uma'u lookout and its parking lot, and were scattered along Crater Rim Drive, the road visitors drive throughout the park. The largest boulder was about 3 1/2 feet wide.

    The rocks flew through a vent about 230 feet below the Halema'uma'u crater rim and left scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory wondering if, and when, it will happen again.

    "Now I know how Capt. Kirk felt we're exploring new worlds," said Jim Kauahikaua, scientist-in-charge at the observatory. "The recent explosive event represents a significant addition and change to Kilauea volcano's ongoing activity, and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is using every means available to study its causes and consequences."

    The explosion left a crater along the east wall of Halema'uma'u about 65 to 100 feet wide.


    Scientists originally said the eruption at 2:58 a.m. yesterday was a 3.7-magnitude earthquake, followed by about 10 smaller quakes in the Halema'uma'u area. But when dawn arrived, scientists discovered volcanic rocks strewn about and knew something unusual had happened.

    By noon, they knew that the recent increase in hydrothermal or gas sources had forced the explosive eruption, the first since May 1924. No lava was found in the area.

    "It's very exciting for all of us," said Jim Gale, chief of interpretation at the observatory. "It's such a change from the overall activity I've seen in my seven years here.

    "We have passive lava fields here in Hawai'i where people usually get up within six feet and experience them. They get so close they can feel the intense heat. Volcanoes are a fantastic experience no matter what, but this is a new experience for us," Gale said.

    He said most of the park remains safe and open, but one mile of Crater Rim Drive was closed yesterday from Kilauea Military Camp to Jagger Museum as a precaution. Four miles of the road have been closed since last month because of increased sulfur dioxide gas emissions, which are still increasing.

    "Our No. 1 priority is to make sure the visitors and area residents are safe," Gale said. "We're monitoring the events.

    "Sulfur dioxide levels have been on the rise since December. There's enough sulfur dioxide being put out at the Kilauea summit right now to fill 150 Goodyear blimps a day," he said. "It is a concern."


    Debbie Smith, a teacher at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua on O'ahu, is helping lead about 60 fourth-graders who are visiting the Big Island this week and staying at the Kilauea Military Camp. She said they have experienced no breathing problems.

    "They closed off another part of the road, but that was it," she said. The group slept through the explosion and didn't know it happened until much later, she said.

    Sulfur dioxide levels within the park are already monitored, and a system is being developed to monitor the levels outside the park. That effort is being coordinated by the observatory, Hawai'i County Fire Department and state Department of Health.

    Sulfur dioxide is an invisible gas that can aggravate pre-existing heart and breathing problems such as asthma and can be dangerous to anyone venturing too close to its source at the high levels the park is now experiencing.

    Reach Dave Dondoneau at ddondoneau@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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