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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 21, 2008

Visitors getting the long view of caldera fumes

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.

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Visitors to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park were still able to see plumes of smoke billowing out of Kilauea volcano yesterday but were kept one to two miles from the scene of the first explosion from the volcano in 84 years.

Scientists who monitor instruments at Kilauea volcano were surprised by the explosion, which occurred at 2:58 a.m. Wednesday. It scattered boulders and smaller rocks over 75 acres of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, said Steve Brantley, deputy scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Yesterday, they did not know if or when a similar explosion will occur.

"We were not expecting an explosion Wednesday morning," Brantley said. And if another explosion were to occur in days or weeks, "we wouldn't be terribly surprised," he said.

"These type of shallow, gas-driven explosions that occur in volcanoes around the world are very, very difficult to predict."

It seems that something has definitely stirred up Madame Pele, more than 500 yards below the summit of Kilauea.

But whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be connected to a build-up of the volcano's magma reservoir or increased gas pressures far below the surface, Brantley said.

"The explosion occurred in the top few hundred meters below the surface," he said, "so perhaps something has changed to allow more gas to escape from the magma within the summit reservoir. Just by itself, it may not lead to more significant activity."

Warnings nevertheless continued on several fronts for miles around Kilauea yesterday:

  • Potentially harmful sulfur dioxide continued to pour out of the volcano, and people with asthma and other breathing problems were warned to avoid being downwind in places like South Point and Kona.

  • Lava flowing out of vents continued to threaten the Royal Gardens subdivision.

  • Up to a dozen small rivers of lava heading into the sea also created hazardous conditions in the form of potentially unstable shelves that could collapse and throw up fiery hot rocks and debris capable of flying a quarter mile inland. Lava suddenly cooled by the ocean also produces plumes of steam laced with acid and fine particles of volcanic glass, or "laze," that is unhealthy if inhaled and can produce skin or eye irritation.

  • Following Wednesday's explosion, the National Park Service also closed Crater Rim Drive through the south caldera area.

    There were no reported injuries from the explosion at Halema'uma'u crater. But falling rocks including a boulder about three and a half feet in diameter damaged the popular Halema'uma'u lookout and its parking lot, and were scattered along Crater Rim Drive, the road that visitors use to drive through the park, Brantley said.

    The explosion was the first since 1924.

    Yesterday, Brantley said, "Vent conditions on the Halema'uma'u crater have not changed. There have not been any additional explosions since the one early Wednesday morning. The activity ... continues to include elevated levels of tremors and high rates of sulfur dioxide gas emissions."

    One mile outside of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park yesterday, a handful of visitors were canceling reservations at the 14-room Kilauea Lodge and Restaurant after inaccurate rumors spread that the park service was evacuating people in the aftermath of the explosion, said Janet Coney, the lodge's office manager.

    "They're not evacuating," Coney said. "Today it's a beautiful day. But they are keeping an eye out on the current eruption for emissions being sent out from Halema'uma'u."

    Coney has been in contact with Big Island Civil Defense officials for any change in wind conditions that could send sulfur dioxide emissions her way.

    "To me, there's a lot of excitement," she said. "I hope the mountain doesn't go. But with Mother Nature, you never know what could happen. You have to take one day at a time."

    Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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