Crowds flocking to see Kilauea show
By Mark Niesse
By Mark Niesse
VOLCANO, Hawai'i — Visitors are flocking to witness the spectacular eruption at Hawai'i's Kilauea volcano despite summit explosions, toxic fumes and partial closures at the national park.
Nearly 9,000 people a day are touring Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on average so far this year, a 2.5 percent increase over last year when the volcano's 25-year eruption was much more peaceful, said Cindy Orlando, the park's superintendent.
"Everybody's coming. I think they recognize they have an opportunity to participate and be here at a very historic time," Orlando said. "They're witnessing the creation of earth, and you can't experience that anywhere else in the world."
Inside Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, viewers can see the plume of ash, sulfur dioxide and volcanic glass rising from Halema'uma'u fire pit, which spewed small blobs of lava that fell along its rim last week and exploded gas and gravel-sized rocks on the summit March 19 — the first such burst from Kilauea's caldera since 1924.
Saturday, scientists revealed that the ash plume at Halema'uma'u contained stuff more hazardous than they had suspected. Last week, the brown-colored plume of ash turned white, leading them to believe it contained less ash and was less of a hazard to people.
However, after analyzing the white fume, the Volcanoes Observatory staff revealed that its ash contained volcanic glass, which is dangerous when breathed, and is an irritant to skin and a hazard to eyes.
The plume has since alternated between brown and white fume. Yesterday, it was white.
Scientists also said they have gotten reports of fine grit dusting cars on Highway 11 and as far away as South Point in Ka'u.
Outside the park along the southeast shore of the Big Island, as many as 10,000 visitors in one day have come to see fresh lava pour into the ocean, creating a giant cloud of steam, according to county and park officials. A new lookout point allows viewers to get about 600 feet from the lava flow.
State and county health officials are planning what to do if the wind changes, blowing the fumes inland toward more populated areas. So far, the trade winds have pushed the ash and fume to the southwest and out over the ocean.
Besides ash and glass, the high levels of sulfur dioxide could pose serious health risks, especially to people with respiratory problems.
"It's unpredictable. The past several months have been extremely unusual, and perhaps the most exciting activity on Kilauea in decades," said Tim Orr, a geologist at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Most of the national park remains open, including the visitor center, Volcano House Hotel, Kilauea Military Camp, Volcano Art Center Gallery, Thurston Lava Tube, Devastation Trail, Chain of Craters Road, Petroglyph Trail and all backcountry campsites.
Closed areas include all trails leading to Halema'uma'u fire pit and part of Crater Rim Drive near the ash-laden toxic gas plume.
The volcano has not given rangers reason to believe it's about to erupt because there's no visible lava in the crater itself, little seismic activity and no surface swell, Orlando said.
"As long as the winds stay as they are, there is no danger," she said. "The park is Hawai'i's gift to the world, so we want to keep the area open as long as we can."
About 536,000 people visited Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in January and February, the most recent months for which data have been compiled.
Park ranger Arnold Nakata said he's trying to allow as many people as possible to view the volcano's recent activity while ensuring their safety.
"This kind of activity is inevitable," Nakata said of the changing lava flows. "It's minute-to-minute. At any given time, this could stop and change."