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Volcano Eruption Update on Hawaii’s Big Island

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The exciting volcanic activity continues to evolve in Halemaumau Crater at the summit of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Throughout most of June 2008, the vent glowed each night with an effusion of beautiful orange light. Its source, a lava pool 100 metres beneath the crater floor, could be seen by the webcam perched at the crater’s lip. Then, on June 30, 2009, a series of rockslides from the vent’s walls caused a ground-shaking explosion and smothered the glow. For the moment, the glow is gone, but daylight viewing of the steam plum rising from the vent continues to be spectacular.

Dramatic steam and gas has been pluming from a vent in the crater wall since March 11, 2008, representing the first eruption in Halemaumau since 1982. In its early stages, there were three small explosions – the first ones at the summit since 1924 – and the plume changed from fluffy white to dusky brown, indicating that ash had sifted into the plume. Then it returned to a snowy white, rising up to a kilometre and a half above the crater.

But beginning in early September 2008, there were more small explosions and increased tremors and the vent grew from about thirty metres across to three times that size by May 2009, spreading onto the crater floor. As the levels of ash in the plume have changed, its colour shifted a number of times from cottony white to various shades of grey, brown and even pink. At night, the dramatic glow from the vent kept visitors mesmerised. (The park is open 24 hours.) One night in early September 2008, lucky visitors saw blue flames shooting from the vent, although no molten lava spilled onto the crater floor.

Intrepid HVO geologists who regularly venture to the crater rim just above the vent are finding lava rocks thrown onto the crater floor and over the top of the rim. At the crater’s lip just above the vent, geologists have also found “Pele’s hair” (thin strands of solidified lava), and “Pele’s tears” (droplets of lava rock) above the crater rim.

The first March explosions damaged the crater rim viewing platform, but that area had already been closed to visitors because of this danger, and the plume’s heavy content of sulfur dioxide. Prolonged exposure to high levels of SO2 can be dangerous, especially to anyone with respiratory conditions. But as long as the customary trade winds are blowing, visitors to the rest of the park are safe. If conditions should change, park rangers will alert visitors.

Excellent viewing is still possible most days from the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum lookout. The small museum has informative volcanology exhibits and an excellent bookstore with DVDs, posters, maps, t-shirts and more — all of it contributing to our understanding of volcanoes in this extraordinary national park.

The excellent lookout at the Jaggar Museum is open, and will remain so as long as conditions permit, although the downwind stretch of Crater Rim Drive is closed off for now. Visitors can also still get stunning views of the heavy plume of steam and gas from the Volcano House hotel and along the adjacent trail.

Coastal Viewing
Meanwhile, 40 kilometres down to the coast at the end of Chain of Craters Road you can hike to an area where lava from Kilauea Volcano was at one time flowing into the sea. In July 2008, there were especially dramatic explosions as fiery lava burst into the sea, and from spectacular outbreaks of molten lava in remote upslope locations.

The show is currently northeast of the park on the coast at Kalapana, located at the end of Highway 130 in the Puna District. Thousands of visitors every week hike to this site to watch lava ooze across the coastal plain, then roll into the sea leaving huge clouds of steam and sprays of molten rock in its wake. The viewing area is open daily from 5 pm to 10 pm, with the last car permitted into the parking area at 8 pm.

Note that volcano activity is unpredictable and can change at any time. For the very latest eruption viewing and health info, visit the County of Hawaii Kilauea Eruption Update Website at http://www.lavainfo.us/. The local Civil Defense recorded hotline at 808-961-8093 is updated once a day. Or call the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park recorded message at 808-985-6000.