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The Science Behind Hawaii's Surprising 2018 Volcanic Eruption

A weak ash plume rises from the Overlook vent in Halema’uma’u crater on May 11. This plume was likely caused by rocks falling into the deepening vent, which contains a lava lake.

Credit: U.S Geological Survey

Kilauea volcano is spewing lava and belching hazardous gases on Hawaii’s Big Island, forcing more than 1,700 people to evacuate their homes.

Eruptions aren’t anything new on Kilauea. In particular, the Pu’u ‘Ō’ō vent, where lava is exposed, has erupted almost continuously since January 1983. But the latest eruption took volcanologists by surprise when it invaded Leilani Estates, a residential area near Kilauea.

Signs of trouble began in mid-March, when increased magma in the system prompted the Pu’u ‘Ō’ō vent to inflate in size, like when a chef pumps cream into a cream puff, Janet Babb, a geologist and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory spokesperson, previously told Live Science. This surge of magma ultimately caused Pu’u ‘Ō’ō’s crater floor to collapse on April 30. After this, the excess magma traveled southeast toward the residential Puna District, Babb said. [Kilauea Volcano: Facts About the 30-Year Eruption]

Small earthquakes had shaken the region all that week, but residents were taken aback by 5.0- and 6.9-magnitude earthquakes on May 3 and 4, respectively, which preceded lava eruptions. Now, newly opened fissures are bubbling with lava almost daily, and Hawaii County Civil Defense has warned sightseers to stay away for safety’s sake.

At 8 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time (HST) on May 13, a slow and sticky flow emerges from a new fissure — No. 17 — northeast at the end of Hinalo Street.

At 8 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time (HST) on May 13, a slow and sticky flow emerges from a new fissure — No. 17 — northeast at the end of Hinalo Street.

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

There was a stupendous lava show this morning from Fissure 17 (the cracks that have opened up during this eruption are numbered, starting with No. 1), with lava fountaining and explosions of spatter that are being hurled more than 100 feet (30 meters) into the air. Fissure 17 also had lava flowing from it. Meanwhile, Fissure 18, which opened yesterday, is only weakly active now and Fissure 19 is emitting a sluggish lava flow, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. [Photos: Fiery Lava from Kilauea Volcano Erupts on Hawaii’s Big Island]

Although Pu’u ‘Ō’ō is getting much of the public’s attention, geologists have also been monitoring the lava lake at Kilauea’s summit. This lava lake — called Halema’uma’u — is dropping dramatically, and if it goes below the water table, there could be a steamy and rocky explosion, geologists said. [Read more: Kilauea Volcano Could Launch 10-Ton Ballistic Boulders in a Dramatic Explosion]

A total of 10 volcanic fissures have opened, pouring lava into the residential area of Leilani Estates. Fires from the lava have burned down 35 structures — mostly homes. Volcanic air pollution known as “vog” has prompted authorities to caution that people with breathing problems should stay inside and use air purifiers if needed. [Read more: Incredible Video Shows the Fiery Toll of Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island]

A magnitude-5.0 earthquake that struck the Big Island on May 3 was followed by lava eruptions that sounded as loud as a jet engine. This prompted mandatory evacuations of the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions. [Read more: Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano Erupts Dramatically After a 5.0-Magnitude Quake]

More than 600 earthquakes have rattled Hawaii’s Big Island over the past four days as magma from Kilauea volcano moves toward the residential area of Leilani Estates. [Read more: Do Hundreds of Earthquakes in Hawaii Mean Kilauea Could Blow?]

Original article on Live Science.

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