Can Hawaii Survive the Kilauea Volcano?

Hawaii’s Kilauea (pronounced kill-uh-way-uh) has been erupting continuously since January 1983 and is the world’s most active volcano.

The past month has been buzzing with news about its eruption, as the world watched in terror. The volcano has been pouring massive walls of lava into houses, swallowing cars, and spreading acid rain across the island.

What Is Posing Danger?

Kilauea Laze
Laze is a deadly mix of hydrochloric acid fumes, steam and volcanic glass specks

1. The Deadly Laze

So far, 22 fissures have opened up as a result of the volcanic eruptions. The lava spilling from the eruptions has destroyed at least 26 homes and 40 shelters around the most active fissure.

The US Geological Survey has recorded 1,301 earthquakes on the island as the Kilauea volcano continues to erupt.

The volcano’s summit has had periodic eruptions of ash, volcanic rocks and toxic gases.

Laze is a combination of the words “lava” and “haze”.

It is a deadly mix of hydrochloric acid fumes, steam and volcanic glass specks. It is created when erupting lava reacts with seawater and is similar to battery acid due to its alarming toxicity levels.

It can produce steam clouds and tiny glass particles. These are dangerous because they contain small glass shards known as fragmented lava, and acid mist from seawater, and are hot and corrosive. Even the tiniest wisp can result in severe eye and skin irritation and respiratory problems.

Kilauea Sulphur Dioxide
Prolonged exposure to sulphur dioxide can lead to fatalities from respiratory failure

2. Sulphur Dioxide Gas Emissions

Besides the ash, residents have to worry about choking on sulphur dioxide.

Sulphur dioxide is a colourless gas with a pungent odour which can cause irritation to the skin, tissue, membranes of the eyes and respiratory system. Prolonged exposure can even lead to fatalities from respiratory failure.

It can also cause acid rain, air pollution and volcanic smog.

The rate of sulphur dioxide gas emitted from large cracks in the ground has tripled, calling for repeated warnings about air quality on the island.

Kilauea Pele's Hair
Blobs of flying molten lava are stretched into extremely fine strands to form Pele’s Hair

3. Pele’s Hair 

Pele’s hair is a term for volcanic glass fibres. It is produced by lava fountains, as blobs of flying molten lava are stretched into extremely fine strands. It is named after the Hawaiian goddess of fire.

The wispy strands measure up to 2 metres long and a diameter of less than 0.5 millimetres. They can be blown tens of kilometres away by wind.

Residents have been urged to stay indoors and minimise exposure to these harmful volcanic particles which can have the same effects as volcanic ash. 

Kilauea Volcano
Kilauea has been spewing lava since 1983 and has no signs of stopping

Will Kilauea Ever Stop Erupting?

Typically, 50% of recorded eruptions last less than 2 months, and 10% end within a day.

However, volcanoes such as the Kilauea, may continue erupting for years and even decades.

Kilauea has been spewing lava since 1983 and this has not changed in the last few weeks.

Compared to previous eruptions, there is major lava flow from new areas of the volcano where lives and property are at risk, making it more dangerous than ever.

Scientists speculate that changes to the surface of Kilauea could indicate that the lava might stop flowing or that a big explosion is on its way.

Aerial footage released by the US Geological Survey suggests that boulders shaken loose by the eruption have filled the vent inside the Halemaumau crater at the summit of the volcano.

“It’s possible that new explosions will blast through the rubble at the bottom of the vent. These may or may not be larger than the previous explosions,” said Kyle Anderson, a geophysicist for Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

“It is also possible that the vent may become permanently blocked, ending the explosions entirely,” he added.

The drone footage, taken on May 31, also shows the crater’s vent has expanded from 48,562 to 485,623 square metres since early May, when the Kilauea eruption occurred.

As the crater’s topography keeps changing, rivers of molten rock are still flowing and is causing threat to residents on the Big Island.

Kilauea Hawaii

Will Hawaii Survive?

There is no indication of when the lava flows will slow or Kilauea returning to its normal low level of activity.

Recovery can only truly begin once the lava cools and hardens to a relatively soft basaltic rock. Just how many roads will be cleared and repaired, remains uncertain.

However, geographically, Kilauea sits just north of Big Island’s south-eastern coast. Lava is reaching the ocean and building land while producing plumes of steam. These eruptions are hugely important for the creation of new land.

The new lava being added to Hawaii by the eruptions replaces older land lost by erosion, thus prolonging the island’s lifespan.

On the other side, older islands to the north-west that have no active volcanoes and are being eroded by the ocean, will eventually disappear beneath the waves.

Officials at the Hawaii Volcano Authority have warned hotter and more viscous lava could be approaching, with fountains spurting as high as 182 metres into the air.

But fear not, Hawaii’s Big Island is still open for tourism as the affected area is far away from most tourist hotspots.

Only visitors with respiratory problems might need to rethink their travel plans.

Will the Economy Take a Hit?

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization has released its county economic forecast. The executive director, Carl Bonham said, “the Big Island will weather this.” Unless it suffers the possible 50% loss of business, according to Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau.

Kilauea has caused the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the island’s biggest tourist attraction. Tourists have also become more cautious of the lava and air quality on the island.

Despite that, the organization has not projected a significant economic downturn statewide and Bonham stated that air travel to Hawaii is still doing well in general.

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