Hawaii Volcano Eruption: What You Need To Know

If you keep up with current events you have undoubtedly heard about Hawaii’s volcanic eruption that has been unfolding for the past couple weeks.

The images of massive plumes of ash towering well over homes and the beautiful landscapes conjure up, for some people, quite a bit of fear of just what will happen to these beautiful island chains. To fully understand what is happening in Hawaii it is important to know the type of volcano and how the islands are affected.

Volcanoes are one way Earth gives birth to itself. – Robert Gross

What Are Volcanoes?

According to Dictionary.com (found here), a volcano is defined as:

a vent in the earth’s crust through which lava, steam, ashes, etc., are expelled, either continuously or at irregular intervals

In other words, a volcano is a rupture in the planet’s crust (volcanoes have been found in space) that gases, lava, and ash can be expelled from. Lava is the molten rock that is found deep within a planet, in this case, Earth. Volcanoes tend to pop up around the boundaries of tectonic plates and are most commonly found in the oceans. The Hawaiian islands are located in what is called the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is where volcanoes are created by converging tectonic plates. Now there are some volcanoes on our planet that are not formed by tectonic plates. There are volcanoes that have emerged in locations where Earth’s crust is thinner, such as the Rio Grande Rift in the United States.

When you think of volcanoes you probably picture a big mountain with lava erupting from it, but those aren’t the only types of volcanoes Earth has. There are three types of volcanoes; cinder cone volcanoes, shield volcanoes, and composite volcanoes.

  • Cinder cone volcanoes have a steep hill of volcanic debris
  • Shield volcanoes have multiple vents where lava oozes out and end up looking like a warrior’s shield
    • The Hawaiian volcanoes are shield volcanoes
  • Composite volcanoes have multiple layers of lava and are comprised of other rocks

Dangers of Volcanic Eruptions

Obviously, a major hazard of volcanoes is the large flow of lava that spews out. There is no real way to stop the lava flow since lava can basically eat through anything given time, but, there have been ways to divert the lava flow historically by using concrete and for the most part, it actually worked.

Another hazard that volcanoes impose is to aviation. The ash plumes that are expelled from volcanic eruptions can get sucked up into planes engine, causing catastrophic damage. Because of this, there are typically no-fly zones around volcanoes that are erupting. For this current eruption, there is a 12-mile aviation restriction around the volcano.

Here are some other hazards that are associated with volcanic eruptions:

  • Debris-flow avalanche
  • Different types of gases
  • Tsunamis
  • Volcanoes have been known to emit lightning
  • Projectiles
  • Lava flow
  • Volcanic collapse
  • Pyroclastic flows

Hawaiian Volcanoes

Hawaii is made up of fifteen volcanoes, three of which that are still currently active. Those three are Maunaloa, Kilauea, and Loihi. These three active volcanoes are shield volcanoes, meaning they have multiple vents where lava oozes from. Maunaloa last erupted in 1984, Loihi is constantly erupting in the ocean and Kilauea has been erupting continually since the 1980’s. The volcano that is currently erupting and causing so many problems is Kilauea.

Here are the islands of Hawaii:

O’ahu953 thousandThe Gathering Place3 million years
Hawai’i185 thousandThe Big Island400 thousand years
Maui144 thousandThe Valley Isle1 million years
Kaua’i66 thousandGarden Isle5 million years
Moloka’i7 thousandFriendly Isle1.9 million years
Lana’i3 thousandPineapple Isle1 million years
Ni’ihau170Forbidden Isle5 million years
Kaho’olawe0Target Isle1 million years

Kilauea Eruption

Kilauea is the most active of the Hawaiian volcanoes and is responsible for this historic eruption that is currently ongoing. Multiple earthquakes prefaced this eruption, one of which was registered as a magnitude of 6.9. In a 24-hour timespan, the island of Hawai’i was hit by 34 earthquakes, ranging in magnitude from 2.0 up to 3.5. Because these tremors are not large there is no tsunami warning associated with them, but a larger earthquake could spark a tsunami warning, so it is important to keep up with warnings and alerts associated with this eruption.

Thus far almost 40 structures have been destroyed by lava flows and the destruction does not seem like it will end soon. A huge danger that Hawaiians are facing, besides that destructive lava, is the gas that the volcano is emitting. Kilauea has over twenty fissures where sulfur dioxide is being released from, creating dangerous breathing conditions across the affected area. Officials are urging people who are having a difficult time breathing to leave the area and get medical help as soon as possible.

While the gas and lava flows are huge concerns, there is one bigger; a massive steam explosion. Kilauea has a large lava lake that is steadily dropping towards the ground. Scientists believe that if that lava lake drops enough to reach groundwater that a steam explosion could occur. This explosion would be catastrophic, sending massive boulders and molten rocks across a twenty-mile radius of the volcano. There was a large eruption on Tuesday this week that sent plumes of ash high up into the sky, but this is still not the large eruption that scientists are concerned about. It is unclear if this massive explosion will occur, but there is a possibility.

The eruption on Tuesday did spark a red warning for the island. The U.S. Geological Survey (known best as the USGS) issued a red warning for aviation, saying that “This morning dense ballistic blocks up to 60 cm (2 feet) across were found in the parking lot a few hundred yards from Halemaumau… Additional such explosions are expected and could be more powerful.” (You can read the entire statement from the USGS here). It is very plausible for these eruptions to destroy many more structures, including homes, making this volcano even more destructive than it already is.