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Explosive Eruption in Hawaii May Signal New Phase of Activity

The overnight explosion may be the start of a more violent period in Kilauea’s eruption.

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next
A dark ash plume rises from the Overlook crater on May 15 at 1:38 p.m. HST.

Kilauea’s ongoing eruption may have entered a more dangerous new phase after an explosion last night.

The disaster had been unfolding more slowly, with a series of fissures on Kilauea’s east rift zone spewing lava, steam, and toxic gases. While deadly, those lack the pyrotechnics of steam-driven explosions that may have driven last night’s 30,000-foot-tall cloud of ash.

Volcanologists also found large rocks measuring two feet across in the parking lot across from Halemaumau crater, where there is currently an active lava lake.

“It felt like I was at sea on a boat,” said Tom Stubberfield, a producer for NOVA covering the eruption. He was awoken in the middle of the night by an intense earthquake. “Then there was a mighty bang. I knew then that was it—the first eruption caused by the magma dropping below the water table.”

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This morning, the U.S. Geologic Survey reiterated their “code red” warning that’s been in place, stating, “At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent.” The projectiles, they warned, could weigh up to several tons and be thrown a half mile or more.

ballistic block
One of the ballistic projectiles that landed in the parking lot adjacent Halemaumau crater.

It’s not clear how long the current eruption will last. “Kilauea is an unusual beast in that it’s been erupting most of the time over the last 200 years,” said Ken Rubin , a volcanologist at the University of Hawaii. “The east rift zone, this long feature that extends about 40 kilometers [25 miles] from the summit of the volcano off to the northeast, has been erupting off and on fairly frequently since 1955.”

At its more intense moments, Kilauea’s eruptions, including those in 1924 and 1952, lasted for weeks. One, in 1969, lasted for 867 days.

With reporting by Allison Eck.

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Photo credits: U.S. Geologic Survey