Early Wednesday morning, officials from the U.S. Geological Survey spotted blue flames rising from cracks in a country road in Leilani Estates, near where lava is spewing from the Kīlauea volcano’s lower east rift zone. The tiny blue blazes are a result of buried vegetation catching fire and filling cracks in the road with ignitable methane.
On the heels of toxic gas clouds, which formed over the weekend as lava spilled into the ocean, the blue flames raise ideas of a Hawaii on the verge of an apocalypse. But if you take a broad view of the hazards, you’ll find a serious local disaster, but not the worst event in Kilauea’s 280,000-year history.
Lava flow in perspective
Kilauea’s lava is seeping from nine of the 23 fissures created since the volcano began emitting lava 20 days ago. Fissure 22, located in the neighborhood of Lanipuna Gardens, remains one of the most active. Its fountains form two main channels of lava that are flowing three miles due southeast and into the sea. This channels are now pouring into the ocean at three spots, producing a billowing haze.
The lava from other fissures is either feeding into the primary channel or pooling where it stands.
“Fissure 7 is producing the most volume of lava. It opened up very recently,” USGS volcanologist Wendy Stovall said Thursday. “There are lava flows that are going to the east from that vent, and they’re reaching about 1,300 feet away from the source.”
Some of the pooling lava approached the Puna Geothermal Venture plant earlier this week, where it came within 1,000 feet of underground wells containing toxic hydrogen sulfide gas.
But by Wednesday, USGS officials said a wall of lava has been forming from the fissure nearest the plant, preventing molten rock from reaching the facility. Hawaii County Civil Defense announced Thursday the situation remains stable.
Despite the epic imagery, Kilauea’s recent activity is a blip when compared to its previous episodes since 1983, when the current eruption technically began. The first fissure created 44 fountains, one every three to four weeks, for more than three years. In March 1990, an 80-foot pile of lava buried a church, a store and 100 homes. This 34-year eruption has produced enough lava to cover more than 55 miles of land.
So far, this month’s lava flows have been confined to a handful of rural neighborhoods in Puna, one of the nine districts on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Puna covers as much ground as Los Angeles, but its population is much smaller, hovering around 45,000 people. Of those, about 4 percent — 2,000 residents — have been forced to evacuate. The eruption has destroyed 50 buildings, including nearly two dozen homes.
Laze and Vog
At the summit, the Kilauea volcano continues to produce about two explosive eruptions per day, launching ash reaching heights of 10,000 feet above sea level. Meanwhile, sulfur dioxide and other gases form volcanic fog, otherwise known as vog.
The ash, vog and the lava haze — laze — produced at the coastline represent breathing hazards for anyone unlucky enough to be standing downwind, which you can track via these vog forecasts. Emergency room visits due to respiratory issues are up 30 percent. The state officials are distributing free masks to protect against ash, but not gases or vapors.
While one man nearly lost his leg to flying lava splatter, no one has died yet in connection to the volcanic activity. Kilauea is the most lethal volcano in American history, but this reputation comes mostly from a 1790 eruption that killed 400. Historic reports and geologic remnants suggest the locals were overwhelmed by a pyroclastic blast — a surging mass of gas and volcanic rock.
Since then, Kilauea has killed 21 people. For comparison, 23 people have died due to volcanic activity at Yellowstone over approximately the same time period.