Kilauea's Rare and Terrifying Volcanic Tornado Phenomenon, Explained

Lava tornadoes are a real thing, apparently.

The latest natural phenomenon caused by Hawaii’s Volcano Kilauea is a rare occurrence from volcanic activity, but given that this is the volcano that has launched boulders the size of refrigerators, maybe it’s not that surprising that Kilauea is now causing volcanic tornadoes.

Many of the lava flows from Kilauea’s several fissures have been steadily destroying homes and infrastructure, prompting authorities to call for mandatory evacuations in the most affected areas. On Wednesday night, lava fountains from Fissure 8 began fluctuating as high as 230 feet, according to the latest statement from the US Geological Survey (USGS). And, as some have shared on social media, these lava fountains are also helping Fissure 8 host volcanic tornadoes.

The tornadoes in Fissure 8 are formed by the intense heat that causes air to rise rapidly and form a vortex, but it’s not a typical tornado. This kind of twister can pick up bits of lava that it will later fling from its interior at random, much like how sharks flew out of the tornado in Sharknado. Kilauea has offered many unique natural phenomena that seem to be lifted straight from the pages of science fiction and “lavanado” is no different. But at least there is a scientific reason why tornadoes can sometimes form within a volcanic fissure’s lava fountains.

As the USGS explained in a Facebook post, volcanoes can “make their own weather” thanks to the pyrocumulus clouds that form when intense heat from the ground induces convection. These rare, mushroom cloud formations are also known as “flammagenitus” or “fire clouds” and create new climate spheres as they tower above lava and gases spattering from a volcano. They can even produce lightning if they have enough electrostatically charged particles from a nearby ash cloud. However, USGS officials were still surprised to see such volatile weather clouds forming as the result of one of Kilauea’s fissures.

“These clouds are most often seen above forest fires or associated with large explosive eruptions, but apparently they can occur over fissures too,” the agency said.

Officials from USGS say that the pyrocumulus clouds are too small to have an impact on the area’s climate and once Fissure 8 stops launching lava 200 feet in the air, the gases helping to form the pyrocumulus clouds will quickly dissipate. While there is no concern that these volcanic twisters will turn into larger tornadoes that can travel along Hawaii’s Big Island, Fissure 8 should be avoided anyway since the tornadoes are still capable of flinging lava.