Hawaii volcano's violent eruption sees giant boulders fly through air

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has erupted once again on Thursday, spewing a steely gray plume of ash 9000 meters, the height of Mount Everest, into the sky that began raining down on a nearby town.

The eruption comes a day after giant ballistic rocks were shot from the volcano the size of microwaves, which the United States Geological Survey described as “the most energetic explosions yet observed.”

The explosion at the summit came shortly after 4am following two weeks of volcanic activity that sent lava flows into neighborhoods and destroyed at least 26 homes.

Scientists said the eruption was the most powerful in recent days, though it probably lasted only a few minutes.

Geologists have warned that the volcano could become even more violent, with increasing ash production and the potential that future blasts could hurl boulders the size of cows from the summit.

Kilauea’s volatile state has forced local residents to evacuate the surrounding areas. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Toby Hazel, who lives in Pahoa, near the mountain, said she heard “a lot of booming sounds” Thursday. Those came after days of earthquakes.

“It’s just time to go — it really, really is,” she said, preparing to leave town.

“I feel so sorry for the people who don’t go, because they don’t have the money, or don’t want to go to a shelter and leave their houses.”

Some people in the community closest to the volcano slept through the blast, said Kanani Aton, a spokeswoman for Hawaii County Civil Defense, who spoke to relatives and friends in the town called Volcano.

The cloud of ash was sent about 9000 meters into the air. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Epic Lava tour operator John Tarson is an early riser and only learned about the eruption after receiving an alert on his phone. The plume, a towering column of ash reaching into a hazy sky, looked different than others he’s witnessed, because of its sheer height.

“What I noticed is the plume was just rising straight into the air, and it was not tipping in any direction,” he said. “We’ve been expecting this, and a lot of people are going to see it and get excited and scared.”

Residents as far away as Hilo, about 30 miles from Kilauea, were starting to notice the volcano’s effects. Pua’ena Ahn, who lives in Hilo, complained about having labored breathing, itchy, watery eyes and some skin irritation from airborne ash.

A National Weather Service ash advisory was in effect until noon, and county officials distributed ash masks to area residents. Several schools closed because of the risk of elevated levels of sulfur dioxide, a volcanic gas.

Ash rained down on nearby areas on Thursday morning. Source: U.S. Geological Survey/ AP

The immediate risk health risk comes from ash particles in the air, said Dr. Josh Green, a state senator who represents part of the Big Island.

Anyone with respiratory difficulties, such as asthma or emphysema, should limit exposure to the ash, Green said.

“People need to stay inside until the winds shift and the ash has settled,” he said.

Geologists have warned that the volcano could become even more violent, with increasing ash production and the potential that future blasts could hurl boulders the size of cows from the summit. Source: Mario Tama/ Getty Images
tourists climb trees on the Volcano Golf and Country Club’s 18th hole to view the plumes of smoke coming from the Halema’uma’u Vent of the Kilauea Volcano in Volcano on May 15. Source: Linda Davidson/ Getty Images

Extended exposure to sulfur dioxide can increase risk of bronchitis and upper respiratory infections in the long run, according to findings of a study Green worked on with other experts published in 2010 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

The summit crater sits within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has been closed since May 11 as a safety precaution over risks of a violent eruption.

Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, has been erupting continuously since 1983. It’s among the five volcanoes that form the Big Island, and it’s the only one actively erupting. An eruption in 1924 killed one person and sent rocks, ash and dust into the air for 17 days.

Scientists cannot say why the eruption is happening now, given that Kilauea has been active for 35 years.

“There’s so many variables. It’s complicated, like a bad Facebook relationship status,” said volcanologist Janine Krippner of Concord University in West Virginia. “Something will eventually change, like it has over and over and over again.”