Hawaii Island’s Kīlauea Volcano has been in a fit of rage since erupting in early May, spewing toxic gas, hurling boulders from its summit and cracking open more than 20 fissures.
The current activity at Kilauea is the latest phase of an eruption that began in 1983 when basaltic lava flows began leaking out of a vent on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone named Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō. The lava has flowed intermittently since then.
Basalt is the most common rock type in the Earth’s crust, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Shield volcanoes, like Kīlauea, are made almost entirely of basalt. Basaltic lavas are more fluid than other types such as andesites or dacites.
What’s happening in Hawaii is very typical of Kīlauea, according to Dr. Peter Ward, a retired volcanologist who spent 27 working for the USGS.
Ward, who once climbed Kīlauea, has dedicated a large portion of his career to examining how volcanoes cause both cooling and warming of Earth’s climate.
One example of warming he points to occurred in central Iceland in August 2014 when Bardabunga Volcano began a six-month eruption.
Ward contends that the Bardarbunga eruption played a major role in 2016 being the warmest year on record. The subsequent basaltic lava flow spilled over 30 square miles in just six months, which is larger than the size of Manhattan (23 square miles).
In comparison, Ward said it’s taken over 30 years for Kilauea to ooze that amount of lava.
He said large basaltic eruptions release gases such as chlorine and bromine into the atmosphere and they can deplete the ozone layer. When the ozone layer is depleted, more ultraviolet B radiation reaches Earth. This type of radiation can cause skin cancer, sunburn and the warming of Earth, he explained.
While volcanoes are able to impact the global climate, there won’t be any noticeable changes to the weather around Hawaii Island thanks to the current eruption.
The eruptions in Hawaii are not big enough to cause changes in the weather, according to Ward.
“The effect of the volcano on weather would be negligible. The weather changes are all perfectly normal,”he said.
Ward described the activity at Kīlauea as “awe-inspiring,” but it doesn’t reflect the fury and power of other potent volcanoes.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 in the Philippines spewed ash more than 22 miles into the sky. Bardarbunga’s ash cloud reached 16 miles and the deadly Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980 unleashed ash about 15 miles into the air. In comparison, the ash cloud from Kīlauea has reached around 5-6 miles into the atmosphere.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the second largest of the 20th century, behind only the 1912 Mount Novarupta eruption in Alaska. The volcano had produced nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. As a result, researchers found that over the next 15 months, the Earth underwent a period of global cooling with a recorded drop in the average global temperature of about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 of a degree Celsius).
In 1783-1784, one of the largest basaltic eruptions ever occurred. The Laki volcano in Iceland released 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide and triggered a period of regional cooling across Europe and North America.
It could be weeks or months before the Kīlauea eruption subsides, with "more of the same" activity expected, Ward said. He added that the biggest concern going forward is keeping the public educated, but the agencies involved have done a good job so far.
The main threat to life remains in the immediate vicinity of the volcanoes, areas that have already been evacuated. However, Ward said Hawaiian volcanoes are not particularly life-threatening when compared to other volcanoes around the world.
Volcanoes typically start with lots of earthquake activity, which serve as plenty of warning for residents to execute their evacuation strategy. In the days leading up the May 3 eruption, hundreds of small earthquakes were observed, which prompted officials to get the public ready to evacuate.
While over two dozen homes have been lost in the Leilani Estates neighborhood, there have been no reports of fatalities.
Warnings from the USGS and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology helped save over 5,000 lives ahead of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption.
The Kīlauea eruption can serve as a reminder of the danger of volcanoes, especially for those who live in areas where volcanoes have been dormant, like the Pacific Northwest, Ward said.
Tens of thousands of people live in Mount Rainier’s lahar-hazard zones, in the Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, suburbs, according to the USGS. The volcano has been resting since its last eruption about 1,000 years ago, but that doesn’t mean people can’t learn about certain hazards.
“Hopefully, [an eruption] won’t occur in our lifetime, but it could,”Ward said.
“It’s really important that you be aware of what your risk is, because if something suddenly starts to happen you’ve given it some thought, you can decide with your family what you need to do.”