As lava hits the sea, plumes of gas and shards of glass shoot into air

As lava hits the sea, plumes of gas and shards of glass shoot into air 1.png
Posted at 1:33 PM, May 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-22 13:33:00-04

PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Vigorous lava flows continue to cascade into the ocean in lower Puna, creating large plumes of "laze" — clouds of toxic gas, steam and tiny glass particles — that could force nearby residents to evacuate at a moment's notice, authorities warned Monday. 

The lava haze has spread miles west of where the lava met the ocean starting Saturday, after crossing Highway 137 near MacKenzie State Park.

Meanwhile, geologists say that volcanic gas emissions have tripledamid "voluminous" eruptions along Kilauea's east rift zone that show no signs of stopping.

"Sulfur dioxide concentrations are likely elevated to higher levels throughout the area downwind of vents," the U.S. Geological Survey warned. 

The message comes as rivers of lava threaten homes and gobble up roads and forests as they carve fiery red pathways toward the sea.

In some places, thunderous methane blasts have been reported as vegetation decomposing beneath the lava produces gas that can ignite and burst ahead of the flow front. And at least one fissure — no. 17 — is producing huge fountains topping 150 feet.

 Also on Monday, explosive eruptions at Kilauea's summit crater again unleashed clouds of ash, prompting new warnings about ashfall.

The incredible eruptive activity, which has been ramping up in recent days, are happening nearly nearly three weeks after the first of at least 22 fissures opened in lower Puna, prompting thousands to flee their homes.

As evacuees grow increasingly concerned about what the future holds, geologists say it remains unclear how long the eruptions will last.

"It's disconcerting not being home, being displaced," said resident Ed Arends, who fled his 5-acre property when the first evacuation orders were issued. "I'm sleeping on a sofa in a guy's living room."

Since eruptions started, lava has destroyed at least 44 structures, including more than two dozen homes. About 300 people are staying at three American Red Cross emergency shelters, while hundreds more residents are staying with friends and family.

"It's been like hell," said resident Ikaika Marzo, who has been helping get much-needed information to those in lower Puna. 

He described the sounds of lava in the area as 10 or 20 jets taking off at once and right in your backyard. "It's like huge grenades going off," he said. "It shakes the whole community."

And in recent days, the lava has been moving more quickly and emerging from the ground in greater volume. That's because the lava that first erupted was magma left over from a 1955 eruption that had been stored in the ground for the past six decades, scientists said.

The molten rock that began emerging over the past few days, though, was from magma that has recently moved down the volcano's eastern flank.

That hotter, fresher lava started has created mounting problems for civil defense officials:

  • Lava has now cut off Highway 137, a critical access point to lower Puna communities.
  • Air quality issues remain a growing concern across lower Puna, and some residents have voluntarily evacuated. 
  • For most of Saturday, powerful rivers of lava threatened homes and roads as they continued traveling downslope toward the ocean.
  • On Saturday night, brush fires that had been ignited by lava were forcing evacuations for residents on Kamaili Road.
  • And a day earlier, four people were airlifted to safety and at least four homes were destroyed in lower Puna as activity from fissure 20 increased. That activity continued through the weekend and into Monday as new fissures and older ones continued their explosive lava flows, spitting out towering, 200-foot lava fountains that lit up the night sky and set off thunderous gas explosions that could be heard for miles around. 

Laze is the newest hazard facing Puna residents, with scientists warning hydrochloric acid in the plume was about as corrosive as diluted battery acid. The glass, meanwhile, was in the form of fine glass shards.

On Sunday, Gov. David Ige again visited the Big Island, seeking to reassure residents.

"Like typical eruptions and lava flows, it's really allowing Madam Pele to run its course," he said.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the eruption claimed its first major injury when a man was struck in the leg by a so-called "lava bomb." 

And authorities continue to urge residents in lower Puna to be prepared to flee quickly, either because of the risk of lava flows or higher levels of sulfur dioxide. Last week, heavy vog across lower Puna forced school closures. But winds pushed the fumes offshore by Friday. 

Jim Kauahikaua, USGS geophysicist, said the amount of gas spewing from outbreaks in Leilani Estates and nearby Lanipuna Gardens is about the same as the amount that comes out of Halemaumau Crater. The difference? The crater isn't in the middle of residential communities.

"The thing to remember is this is putting out as much sulfur dioxide as Halemaumau does normally," he said. 

Geologists are also monitoring widening cracks in a number of roadways in Leilani Estates, ground zero for the ongoing eruptions.

Steve Brantley, of the USGS, said the large cracks, which have torn roads apart in some places or created gaps of 1 yard or wider, are an indication that magma is continuing to enter the rift zone.

"The rift zone is being forced apart," he said. "I think clearly it points to the potential for additional eruptive activity" in lower Puna. 

Marzo, the resident, said he saw a crack on Nohea Street widen from about 3 feet on Thursday morning to about 10 feet wide later in the day. He also said that about 40 yards of the road sank. 

"These cracks are definitely taking a toll on people getting to their homes," he said.

The developments underscore the scope of the disaster in the area, which has upended lives, destroyed homes and shows no signs of stopping. 

In lower Puna, residents say the eruptions have turned their community into a "war zone." 

"Everything is so uncertain. It's really nerve-wracking," said Debbie Kalaluhi, who can see the ongoing eruption of fissure no. 17 from her backyard. "You're very on edge. You have to really see it to believe it."

A presidential disaster declaration has been issued for the ongoing Kilauea eruptions, which authorities have compared to months-long volcanic activity in February 1955, in which at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and lava covered about 3,900 acres. 

Back then, coastal communities from Kalapana to Kapoho were evacuated and "sections of every public road to the coastline were buried by lava" before the eruption abruptly stopped in May 1955 — after 88 days.

This story will be updated.

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