Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano Cracks Open Earth, Endangering Neighborhoods With Lava

The area affected by the lava is one of the fastest growing in the state

Leilani Crack

At 4:30 P.M. local time Thursday, lava from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island began emerging from a 492-foot fissure in the volcano’s eastern rift zone. The volcanic activity forced the mandatory evacuation of two subdivisions in the Puna district—Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Garden—which are located about 25 miles from the volcano, Allyson Chiu and Lindsey Bever at The Washington Post report.

Acting Mayor of Hawai‘i County, Wil Okabe signed an emergency proclamation that afternoon, which was followed by the Governor of Hawaii, David Ige's emergency proclamation later that evening. "The danger is of such magnitude," wrote Ige, "that it warrants preemptive and protective action in order to provide for the safety, health and welfare of the residents of Leilani Estates and surrounding areas."

CNN reports that the lava flow wasn’t completely unexpected. Over the last few days, 600 small earthquakes have rattled the eastern edge of the island as magma began moving under the volcano. Authorities had warned residents that an eruption was possible and to prepare for possible evacuation.

On Thursday morning around 10:30 a.m., a more significant 5.0 magnitude quake struck, which the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported caused a partial collapse of the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō crater, located between the volcano and the Leilani Estates subdivision. The event created a "robust" plume of ash that rose high into the air.

About six hours later, lava began emerging from cracks in the subdivision, spouting as high as 125 feet, though the lava flow did not travel more than 30 feet from the crack, according to the Observatory.

Pu’u Oo crater yesterday USGS

As Hawaii News Now reports, the incident isn’t over. Just this morning more vents opened up and there are now active lava spurts on Makamae and Mohala streets in Leilani Estates. Fire officials are warning residents that they have detected dangerously high level of sulfur dioxide in the area and urge that the mandatory evacuation orders be taken seriously.

As CNN reports, breathing in the fumes can lead to burns in the nose and throat and can impact breathing. Aside from health concerns, the evacuation orders are important because the fissures remain unpredictable. “The opening phases of fissure eruptions are dynamic and uncertain. It is not possible at this time to say when and where new vents may occur,” the Observatory says. “Areas downslope of an erupting fissure or vent are at risk of lava inundation."

Olivia Peterkin reports in a separate article for Hawaii News Now that the recent swarm of quakes are comparable to the events that foreshadowed Kilauea's 1955 eruption. Jim Kauahikaua, a research geophysicist at the Observatory, tells Peterkin that 24 separate lava vents opened over a three-month period during that time, burying roads and covering around 4,000 acres of land.

Austin Ramzy and Sabrina Tavernise at The New York Times report that despite the looming volcano, the area affected by the lava is one of the fastest growing in the state. It has contended with its share of lava in recent years, too. In 1990, around 100 homes in nearby Kalapana were engulfed by a lava flow, and in 2014 a surface flow of lava from Kilauea burned a house in Pahoa.

Kilauea, the youngest volcano in Hawaii, is one of, if not the most active, volcanoes on Earth. Check out Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Project's time-lapse animation to see how Kilauea stacks up against other volcanic eruptions and earthquakes since 1960.

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