Despite breaking news, the volcano has been erupting for over 30 years
Hawaii is an island paradise known for its jaw-dropping beauty, rich culture, and active volcanoes.
Located along the southeast coast of Hawaii, Kilauea is one of the five volcanoes that make up the big island of Hawaii. In the past month, the eruption of Kilauea has hit the front page of nearly every national news organization. Although a volcanic eruption may be perceived as an apocalyptic event of great concern and magnitude, this current activity is quite ordinary. Despite the breaking news coverage of Kilauea, this is just the most recent phase in an eruption cycle that has been in effect since the early 1980s.
The effects of this volcanic eruption are predominantly localized, including evacuations and the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. However, with tourism season approaching, they are expected to have a economic impact statewide.
“Kilauea has been erupting since 1983, and so what is happening now is entirely typical of what has happened over the last 30-odd years,” said Kari Cooper, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “It’s just that it has started in a new location recently and that’s why the press is interested in it.”
The activity is centered around the East Rift Zone, where 22 new fissures have emerged. Fissures are long cracks or openings in the ground that allow magma to surface.
“We call it magma below the surface and then lava once it gets to the surface,” Cooper said. “The fissures allow the magma to get to the surface and then you get some, what we call, spattering, meaning [volcanic rock] gets tossed out of the ground some 10 to 30 feet up in the air and then it also feeds a lava flow.”
Volcanic eruptions are often overdramatized in movies, with embellished scenes of lava encompassing entire villages, sending people running for their lives. But in reality lava is generally only harmful to immovable objects.
“[Lava] is less directly hazardous to people usually because it doesn’t move very fast in this particular area,” Cooper said. “People can typically walk fast enough to get out of the way. So unless you were caught by surprise or surrounded by a lava flow, it is very unlikely to be in danger for your life.”
Along with lava and spattering, the fissures are also emitting harmful gases into the atmosphere.
“They emit volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide and chlorine bearing gases, which can form hydrochloric acid and steam,” Cooper said. “All magma has some amount of volcanic gases dissolved in them when they are formed deep below the surface. And then as they come up to the surface, those gases come out of solution.”
An analogy to this process, Professor Cooper explained, is like opening a bottle of soda.
“The amount of gas that is contained in the magma varies depending on the path that it has taken to the surface, and so you’ll get different amounts of gas with different phases of the eruption,” Cooper said. “Sometimes the plume is more acid rich or hazardous than other times because of the particular nature of the magma that is coming up at that time.”
Plume referred to the steam emitted from the fissures which contains ash and volcanic gases.
“There are both short-term, acute hazards which are mainly going to be affecting people who are susceptible to respiratory problems, and then there are the long-term, chronic hazards,” Cooper said. “Say if you live downwind of it for your entire life, you might start to notice some effects.”
Colin Ferguson, a graduate research fellow in geochemistry who got his undergraduate degree at UC Davis in 2015, further explained the effects of the volcanic gases.
“It doesn’t really affect local life normally very much because the trade winds carry the gases from the main crater off the island and out toward the ocean,” Ferguson said. “And it’s always being monitored.”
Cooper and Ferguson explained that most healthy individuals are not at any major risk of inhaling these gases for short periods of time. The main threat is posed to those with already weakened respiratory and immune systems.
“Basically with volcanoes, no matter the type [of volcano] they are, where they are, you get a lot of CO2 and steam coming out,” Ferguson said. “And you get some sulfur coming out either in the form of hydrogen sulfide or sulfur dioxide. So those two main components of sulfurous gases or carbon gases can create acid rain locally.”
Again, although this may sound alarming, volcanologists and geologists express the normalcy of this activity that has been ongoing since the start of the eruption in 1983.
“You have a lot of moisture in a tropical environment, and then the volcanic gases are coming out, they mix with the water and then they make acid which rains out nearby,” Ferguson said. “So there has been this problem with Kona coffee for a while now where the acid rain has been attacking the coffee crop due to a change in prevailing winds.”
The effects on the agriculture near the summit is just one way that Kilauea’s eruption has impacted the island economically.
One major devastation to the locals who live near the volcano is the loss of homes and destruction of roads.
“In terms of local effect, there have been 30-some houses burned,” Robert Zierenberg said, a professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “There are only two major roads that connect [locals] to the rest of the island. One of those roads has already been covered by lava, so you can’t get out that way — the other road has cracks and hot gas is coming out, so it could turn into another fissure.”
According to Time magazine, as of May 25 at 1 a.m., Hawaii county has evacuated 2,000 residents in Leilani and surrounding neighborhoods.
“At this point, all the people who live on that side of the island have no way to get to their homes anymore or no way to escape from them,” Zierenberg said. “So the local effects are quite devastating to the people who live in that area.”
The more significant and widespread economic repercussions the eruption is having on Hawaii is the hit to the tourism industry.
“In Hawaii, tourism is a big part of their economy and people are canceling their trips to Hawaii because people are worried about the eruption,” Zierenberg said. “The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park [receives] a couple million visitors a year, and right now it’s closed, so that will have a big economic effect on the island in general. So the effects are not really too worldwide, but if you live in Hawaii there can be a lot of hardship for people who have lost their houses or are losing their income because of this.”
As for predictions for how long these events will continue, experts are unsure.
“That is the question that everyone wants the answer to, especially the geologists who are in charge of volcanic safety, and unfortunately we don’t know what the volcanoes going to do,” Zierenberg said.
Cooper conveyed a similar sentiment.
“I think in volcano science we are at a stage where we could, in theory, in the next 10 or 20 years, get to the point where we could make probabilistic predictions like we do with weather now,” Cooper said. “What we would need is a better understanding of what is going on below the surface in volcanos because eruptions are all started by things that happen below the surface. And so we need to have a better understanding of signals that we measure at the surface like changes in earthquake activity, changes in volcanic gas emissions and how to interpret that in terms of what is going on below the surface and then what that means in terms of whether something is going to erupt or not.”
Kilauea’s location and the fact that it has been active for the past three decades makes it a prime site to study and measure volcanic activity. The U.S. Geological Survey has an observatory located at the summit and has had instruments monitoring the volcano for the last hundred years.
Within the UC Davis Department of Geology, students have the opportunity to gain field experience by studying in Hawaii. Geology 138 is a unique summer session undergraduate volcanology course that travels to Kilauea to study at the summit.
“We wouldn’t be able to run it right now because the national park is closed and the students stay right at the summit of the volcano at what’s called the Kilauea military camp,” Zierenberg said. “The class is normally taught in summer session, so if the eruption stabilizes and the park reopens we will try to offer the class. But right now it’s uncertain.”
When Zierenberg taught this class in the past, one of his students was Colin Ferguson, who was an undergraduate geology major focusing on volcanology.
“It’s a dream class,” Ferguson said. “One of those incredible experiences you’ll never look back on and regret having spent time in Hawaii studying an active volcano.”
With the class scheduled for Summer Session II, it is unclear whether the state of the volcano will allow geology students to travel to Hawaii for the field program.
“This eruption could stop tomorrow, it could be going on 10 years from now in the same place, and we really have no way of knowing that,” Zierenberg said. “But with each eruption we learn a little bit more and hopefully with every eruption will get a little bit better at answering those kinds of questions, but mother nature is in charge — we are not.”
Written by: Grace Simmons — firstname.lastname@example.org