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The science behind Hawaii’s bubbling lava

Hawaii emergency crews continue to battle lava flow and hazardous sulfur dioxide fumes, four days after the Kilauea volcano erupted on the big island. The slow-moving lava has destroyed 35 structures so far, including at least 26 homes; no fatalities have been reported. Amna Nawaz talks with Michael Garcia of the University of Hawaii.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Emergency crews continued to battle lava flow and hazardous fumes today, four days after the Kilauea volcano erupted on Hawaii's Big Island.

    Roadblocks are set up miles away from where lava is spilling out from fissures on the street. The eruptions have been followed by a series of small earthquakes.

    The ground split open near the Leilani Estates subdivision; 35 structures, including at least 26 homes, have been destroyed so far, with nearly 2,000 people forced to evacuate and unsure of how long they will be displaced.

    While the lava can be slow-moving, this time-lapse footage shows just how devastating it can be as it makes its way across streets.

  • Woody Nelson:

    It kept me up weeks on weeks knowing that the volcano is there. And this nightmare finally came true today, the whole House up in flames.

  • Cheryl Griffin:

    Living here, you — that's the gamble that you take, is to have all this beauty. And it's the volcanoes. You have got to just know that you live on an active volcano.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some residents have been allowed back into safe spots briefly to collect pets and belongings, all the while, sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas, is being released through volcanic vents in the ground, prompting a cell phone alert from local officials to avoid it at high levels.

    No fatalities have been reported, but authorities are asking all tourists and sightseers to avoid the Leilani Estates area.

    And for more about the volcano, the eruption and the risks in the days to come, let's talk to a volcanologist who studies Kilauea and others regularly.

    Michael Garcia of the University of Hawaii joins us via Skype.

    Professor Garcia, thanks for your time. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let me ask you about Kilauea. It's the youngest and the most active volcano on Hawaii.

    What do we know about the latest activity we're seeing now?

  • Michael Garcia:

    Well, the activity seems to be waning somewhat. The active fissure, fissure number eight, has diminished overnight and so we're hopeful this eruption might stop soon.

    However, the earthquakes are continuing, so there's every sign that perhaps activity might restart.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned those fissures. People have been describing seeing those, basically the ground opening up and the lava below bubbling up or shooting up in some cases.

    Help us understand, what prompted those fissures in the first place?

  • Michael Garcia:

    So, the fissures are in response to the injection of new magma from the summit of the volcano.

    So magma works its way down the so-called rift zone of the volcano, and as it does this, it cracks the earth, because the injection of magma is causing the ground to swell, so the swelling leads to the cracking. And as the magma gets close to the surface, you begin to see those cracks get wider and wider.

    So, for a while, the scientists were measuring the opening of these cracks as a way to try and understand when it might actually erupt.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned measuring those cracks. There's also a lot of other monitoring that goes on around Kilauea.

    Tell me a little bit about how you keep an eye on the volcano, and if we had any sign that this was coming.

  • Michael Garcia:

    Well, many different techniques are utilized, particularly ground deformation, earthquakes, and even the gas that are being released from the volcano. So a variety of different kinds of techniques are utilized to try and understand what's going on at depth.

    And sometimes we're caught off-guard in terms of, like in this case, that the eruption would leave the locations where you had two active vents. You had a lava lake the last 10 years at the summit of the volcano. You had an active vent for 35 years on the middle of the east rift zone.

    Both of those things have lost their magma flow. And instead the lava is drained down the rift zone and then popped up 20 kilometers away from where it was erupting previously.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of the focus, as people pay attention to this, has been on the lava flow. Right? There have been some mesmerizing videos on social media and elsewhere, but you mentioned the gas. I want to ask you about that.

    A lot of people are pointing to that sulfur dioxide as something that is much more of a threat. Tell me about that.

  • Michael Garcia:

    Well, it's a threat if you get caught off-guard.

    Normally, like yesterday, in particular, we had strong trade winds. So as long as you're aware of where the vents are and which way the wind is blowing, you should be able to avoid that gas.

    But there are times when the trade winds drop down and the gas lingers in the forest or along the highways, and you could be caught off-guard and get gassed. I have had that happen to me several times. It's a very unpleasant experience.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's been a number of homes destroyed, right, dozens and dozens, hundreds of people forced to evacuate as well.

    What can you tell us about this subdivision, this Leilani Estates subdivision, that's been particularly harmed by this latest activity?

  • Michael Garcia:

    Well, over 1,700 people live in the subdivision.

    But it has got the highest ranking of a hazard zone on the island, so it's hazard zone one. So people were aware, I think, that they have some risk. But the last eruption in this area was in 1955. So I think people were under the impression that nothing may happen for a while.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Michael Garcia, thank you for your time.

  • Michael Garcia:

    You're very welcome.

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