Science

Images of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano show the destructive power of nature in action

Since May 3rd, Hawaii’s most active volcano, called Kilauea, has been spewing out lava and molten rock on a residential area called Leilani Estates, prompting evacuations and destroying up to 26 homes. The eruption has also been providing us with some stunning and terrifying photos and videos of bright orange lava bubbling up from cracks in the ground and shooting up to 330 feet (100 meters) into the air.

The Kilauea volcano has been erupting almost without stopping since 1983, according to the US Geological Survey. That’s because it sits on a hot spot in the middle of the Pacific plate with high amounts of magma coming up to the surface, says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University. “What we’re seeing right now is pretty normal for the Kilauea activity,” she says. But because the eruptions are happening where people live, it’s causing lots of destruction. “It’s coming out right below these people’s homes.”

In the past week, magma has been traveling down the East Rift Zone, an area where rocks that make up the volcano are split apart, allowing the lava to spill out. Why exactly this is happening isn’t clear, Krippner says. But the event is “pretty significant.” The lava level inside one of Kilauea’s craters dropped about 721 feet (220 meters) below the crater’s rim, according to the USGS. That extra lava is now coming out on the East Rift Zone.

Several cracks, called fissures, have been opening up in the area. The cracks appear because the magma is building up lots of pressure underground, causing the land to fracture and the lava to flow out. Thankfully, the lava is moving pretty slowly, typically at less than 0.62 miles per hour (1 km per hour), Krippner says. But sometimes, it juts out vigorously, creating lava fountains. These eruptions occur because “lava is extremely gassy,” Krippner says. It’s like if you shake a can of Coke before opening it: the gas will shoot out quickly, sounding like thunder.

It’s impossible to say how long this latest eruption will last, according to Krippner. It could be weeks or even months. (One eruption that began in May 2016 — and gave us the spectacular “lava fire hose” early last year — ended just a few days ago, Krippner says.) In the meantime, here are some views of the lava fountains, molten rocks gobbling up cars, and streets with smoking cracks. Overall, they’re an apt reminder of how wild and powerful nature can be.


The summit lava lake in one of Kilauea’s craters has dropped significantly over the past few days, about 721 feet (220 meters) below the crater’s rim.
Photo: USGS


A column of reddish-brown ash plume coming out of the Kilauea volcano on May 4th, 2018.
Photo: USGS

If all these images and videos are not enough, and you want to geek out even more, the USGS also keeps some webcams at the Kilauea summit, looking into the volcano’s vents and providing 24/7 updates.

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