Hazards created by Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano have spawned a lot of questions from the public. How long will this last? Is it safe to be on Big Island right now? Can I roast marshmallows?
The US Geological Survey has been answering those questions on social media. Here’s a look at some of them. The questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Is it safe to roast marshmallows over volcanic vents?
USGS: Erm…we’re going to have to say no, that’s not safe. (Please don’t try!) If the vent is emitting a lot of SO2 [sulfur dioxide] or H2S [hydrogen sulfide], they would taste BAD. And if you add sulfuric acid (in vog, for example) to sugar, you get a pretty spectacular reaction.
Q: Is it safe to be in Hawaii right now?
USGS: The eruption at Kilauea right now is impacting a small portion of the Big Island. Lava flows are active on the eastern tip of the island, in lower Puna, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closed due to the small explosions occurring at Kilauea’s summit. But the Island of Hawaii is made up of 5 volcanoes, and only Kilauea is erupting.
Even if there were to be a change in activity at Kilauea, it would not impact Hilo or Kailua-Kona (the largest towns on the island), which are located on different volcanoes. The biggest impacts might be vog, but that has been a persistent issue on the island for decades. You can actually get real-time vog information at sites around the island from the Hawaii Department of Health at http://www.hiso2index.info/.
Q: But what about the vog?
USGS: Vog has been persistent on the Big Island for decades – it’s a product of any active eruption. It got worse in 2008, when the summit eruption started. During some types of weather conditions, it can bring a haze to Kailua-Kona, but it is not a significant health hazard. There is quite a bit more vog being generated in the lower East Rift Zone by the current eruption, but it still is not a major concern in Kailua-Kona.
Q: Will the explosions on the summit continue for weeks? Months? Years? Decades?
USGS: We know how long similar explosive activity has lasted (the 1924 eruptions went on for about 2.5 weeks), but we can’t guarantee that the activity now will follow the same pattern.
Q: Is there an estimate on volume of lava flow yet?
USGS: Not yet. Lava flow volumes are extraordinarily difficult to measure, but we are working on various means of determining eruption rates (including topographic mapping thanks to a NASA airplane that is on site, and also measuring gases, which can be used as a proxy for effusion rate).