Hawaii's Kīlauea volcano releases ash plumes to 30,000 feet, prompting aviation alerts

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ash plume rises from fissure at Kīlauea volcano on May 15.
Image: USGS.

On Thursday morning, before dawn, Hawaii's Kīlauea shield volcano erupted again, sending up an ash plume to an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 meters). This follows an earlier eruption Tuesday afternoon, after which authorities issued an aviation alert and to extend an ash-fall advisory for residents. The current eruption event began May 3 and has caused thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Robert Hughes, whose Aloha Junction Bed and Breakfast, is only 1.5 miles from the volcano's crater described the day as otherwise "a nice rainy day" and reportedly some nearby residents slept through the 4:00AM local time eruption (1400 UTC).

Hawaii is one of the United States and an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Kīlauea is located on the island of Hawaii, generally called the "Big Island." The 2018 eruptions at Kīlauea first started on May 3. Since then, about 20 fissure vents have opened, cracking concrete and giving off steam, lava and toxic gases.

Lava flows on a road in Hawaii on May 5.
Image: USGS.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) issued a "notice for aviation" to alert pilots of dangerous conditions. "We're observing more or less continuous emission of ash now with intermittent, more energetic ash bursts or plumes," said Steve Brantley of the HVO. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) also issued a "red alert" which means "major volcanic activity is imminent, underway or suspected with hazardous conditions both on the ground and in the air."

The National Weather Service extended its advisory about ash-fall as winds spread the ash and cause elevated risk of respiratory problems for residents. By mid-morning on Thursday, the warning ran until midday (12:00 local, 2200 UTC).

Monday, authorities reported fissures throwing lava and boulders as far as 500 feet (about 150 meters). The volcanic eruption has destroyed dozens of buildings, and necessitated the evacuation of more than 2000 people.

The initial eruption was accompanied by a magnitude-6.9 earthquake and followed by many smaller quakes thereafter. Dozens of homes and other buildings, as well as roads, have been destroyed. However, the Hawaii Civil Defense Agency sought to calm public worries about a tsunami on Tuesday, stating: "according to the [HVO] there is no geologic evidence for an tsunami-generating earthquake at this time. Any such event is extremely unlikely."

The lava released so far has been slow and relatively cool, left over from an earlier event in the 1950s, but there were concerns that fresh, fast-moving lava may be right behind. Although the current eruption event began May 3, technically the volcano hasn't stopped erupting since 1983.