For 35 years, Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano existed in a constant state of gentle eruption, which local humans found peace with. Then, on May 3, lava suddenly oozed out of a new fissure, and over a dozen more have opened since then. The day after the first new fissure cracked open, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit, and geologists predict things could continue to get real wild, real soon.
On Thursday, Charles Mandeville, volcano hazards coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, said that if Kilauea erupts violently enough to eject its peak in the days or weeks to come, the volcano could send ash and rocks the size of refrigerators flying out from it. It would be dangerous enough to merit restricting flight paths overhead, he says, but perhaps most frighteningly, they’ll endanger people on the ground. When these rocks land, you’d better make sure you’re out of the way: “If it goes up, it will come down,” Mandeville told the Associated Press. “You don’t want to be underneath anything that weighs 10 tons when it’s coming out at 120 mph.”
The number of new fissures that have opened up now totals 15. Spraying lava that has destroyed roads and homes, they have forced the evacuation of over 2,000 people. Given Kilauea’s past eruptions in 1790 and 1925, scientists speculate the current one could continue for weeks, or even months. If history is any indication, fridge-sized rocks are totally possible. “We know the volcano is capable of doing this,” Mandeville told the AP. “We know it is a distinct possibility.”
Kilauea, the youngest volcano in the Hawaiian island chain, provides valuable resources for the people who live there, including fertile soil and geothermal energy. But of course, living near an active volcano has its hazards, too. Besides the lava, which is obviously dangerous, the volcano also releases sulfur dioxide gas, which is very toxic for living animals to breathe in. Therefore, even people who aren’t in danger of being rolled over by lava have been urged to seek shelter outside the volcano’s range.
On Thursday morning, Tina Neal, the scientist in charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, announced that activity had seemed to pause overnight but that the risks to human activity have by no means gone away. “We expect more [rock falls, triggering ash emissions], and they could become more vigorous,” she said.
For now, all we can do is wait and see what happens with Kilauea, whether the lava pressure subsides or builds, springing more leaks in the form of fissures or even a violent eruption.