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Kīlauea: Laze among new dangers to Hawaii's Big Island this week

By Alex Sosnowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist
May 23, 2018, 3:07:22 AM EDT

Residents on Hawaii's Big Island are facing a new danger this week now that lava has entered the ocean: laze - a mix of hydrochloric acid, steam and fine glass particles.

In the past two weeks, nearly two dozen new fissures opened up and spewed lava and poisonous gas into residential areas on and surrounding the Kīlauea dome.

More residents were forced to evacuate on Saturday evening as brush fires triggered by the lava flows threatened homes, according to Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency.

Residents also endured more hardships overnight Saturday as the lava crossed Highway 137, the main evacuation route for Lower Puna, and Pohoiki Road, which cut off the water supply.

Another eruption occurred at the summit on Monday evening, sending an ash plume high into the atmosphere and further elevating gas levels downwind of the volcano.

The danger for laze arose as two lava flows entered the ocean.

"Laze is formed when hot lava hits the ocean, sending hydrochloric acid and steam with fine glass particles into the air," the agency stated. "Health hazards of laze include lung, eye and skin irritation."

Northeasterly winds will continue to confine the risk of exposure to the laze and vog to Hawaii's Big Island this week.

Volcano May 19

During an overflight, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists observed a very active fissure 20 on Saturday, May 19, 2018. Channelized lava flows originating from a line of low fountains are moving to the east-southeast. (Twitter Photo/U.S. Geological Survey)

What are northeasterly trade winds?

The northeasterly trade winds are a nearly continuous belt of winds that blow from the northeast in the tropical part of the Northern Hemisphere.

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The trades will tend to limit the concentration of vog and laze mainly to the southern and western portions of the Big Island this week.

Vog May 20

What is vog and what are the risks from it?

Vog is low-level smog or haze that forms when moisture is present and contains smoke, dust and gases from a volcanic eruption. In the case of Kīlauea, these pollutants are being produced by the many fissures.

Vog contains sulfuric compound gases such as sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. The amount of sulfur dioxide emissions tripled on Sunday, the Civil Defense Agency reported.

Sulfur dioxide irritates the skin as well as the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The symptoms can include pain when taking a deep breath, coughing, throat irritation and breathing difficulties.

Hawaii overview May 21

Sulfuric acid can damage metal and painted finishes over time.

These gases can be dangerous for any people, but especially those with respiratory problems, young children and the elderly.

Vog is not the only airborne threat from Kīlauea

An explosive eruption occurred on Thursday, May 17. The ash cloud was initially forced up to 30,000 feet into the atmosphere. A smaller eruption followed on Friday night with the ash cloud reaching up to near 7,000 feet. A similar eruption occurred on Sunday night.

"Additional explosive events that could produce minor amounts of ashfall downwind are possible at any time," the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory stated. "Volcanic gas emissions at the summit remain high."

In addition to the risk of damage to lungs and suffocation in extreme cases, even a small amount of volcanic ash can damage and shut down aircraft jet engines since it is an abrasive that contains glass, crushed rocks and gases, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The higher the ash clouds gets, the greater the danger to aircraft on a regional basis due to stronger winds aloft distributing the plume over a larger area.

The trajectory of the ash cloud will be determined by the duration and height of any future eruption and the winds at the level the ash cloud reaches.

"Any weaker eruptions into midweek would generally lead to ash being confined to areas around and to the southwest of the volcano," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski. "A stronger eruption could lead to the ash cloud being dispersed over more of the Big Island."

Rocks that occasionally fall into the fissures and craters can be ejected over long distances without notice and pose significant risk to bystanders.

What lies ahead?

Eruptions of varying severity are likely to continue in the near future.

However, when Kīlauea will return to its more passive state prior to May is not known. Dangerous eruptions may continue for days, weeks and months.

Most days through the summer, the northeasterly trade winds will confine the risk of vog and ash from minor eruptions to the southern and western part of the Big Island.

"The trade wind pattern is expected to prevail into the Memorial Day holiday weekend, " Pydynowski said.

However, periodic shifts in the wind may allow some distribution of both vog and any ash farther to the northwest across the island chain.

While high-altitude clouds and gases from massive volcanic eruptions in the past have had an effect on climate around the globe, the ash plume from Kīlauea has not yet been forced high enough in the atmosphere to have significant impact.

Kīlauea, located on the southern part of Hawaii's Big Island, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

This volcano has a dome structure and has different eruptions when compared to other types of volcanoes. For example, Mount St. Helens has a steep cone structure and is subject to very violent explosions after long periods of dormancy.

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