Molten lava from Hawaii's erupting Kilauea volcano is pouring into ocean water, forming a potentially fatal toxic white cloud. Experts have warned that the eruption could be entering its most dangerous phase yet.
Hawaii authorities on Monday warned the public to steer clear of the toxic white cloud seen rising out of the ocean.
The plumes of acid and fine shards of glass are the latest of several mounting dangers caused by Kilauea volcano, which first erupted more than two weeks ago and has gone to destroy at least 44 homes in Hawaii's Puna district and forced some 2,000 people to evacuate their homes.
The eruption on Hawaii's Big Island is entering its most violent phase yet, according to experts, in which rich, orange, molten rock is pouring out of fissures in the ground, travelling faster and at higher temperatures than the magma that first spilled out.
Scientists say that that's because the magma was left over from a 1955 eruption, and had been stored in the ground for the past six decades.
"We've seen Phase 1," said Carolyn Pearcheta, an operational geologist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. "We've seen the clearing out of the system. We call that the 'throat-clearing' phase."
The clouds of so-called "laze" — a combination of "lava" and "haze" — formed as steams of hot lava and fine volcanic glass specks pour into the ocean and mix with the seawater.
Geologists warned that the toxic cloud could extend as far as 15 miles (24 km) along the coast and offshore.
While getting hit by the cloud may feel like being sprinkled with glitter, even a small wisp of the fumes can cause eye and respiratory irritation, and could even be fatal.
"If you're feeling stinging on your skin, go inside," US Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall said.
In 2000, a similar cloud caused by lava reaching the Hawaii coast killed two people.
The cloud can also cause acid rain with corrosive properties equivalent to diluted battery acid, according to the Geological Survey.
Earlier on Monday, a small eruption at the Kilauea summit produced an ash plume that reached about 7,000 feet (2,134 meters). Meanwhile, lava and molten rock continued to gush out of large cracks in the ground, creating rivers of lava that bisected forests and farms as they rushed towards the coast.
Lava rushing towards geothermal power plant
On Monday, lava spewing out of the Kilauea volcano flowed towards a geothermal power plant; workers scrambled to shut it down and prevent an uncontrollable release of more toxic gases into the air.
Staff at the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) plant rushed to shut down three wells which tap into extremely hot water and steam some 6,000 to 8,000 feet underground to power turbines and produce electricity.
Read more: Why risk living on a volcano like Kilauea?
The plant, which provided around a quarter of all power to the Big Island, was closed shortly after eruption began earlier this month, and some 60,000 gallons (227,124 liters) of flammable pentane used in the turbines had already been relocated.
Tourism under threat
Scientists said they have no way of knowing how long the eruption is going to last. Ige said the state was monitoring volcano activity and working to keep people safe. "Like typical eruptions and lava flows, it's really allowing Madam Pele to run its course," he said, referring to the Hawaiian goddess of fire.
Hawaii tourism officials have stressed that most of the Big Island remains unaffected by the Kilauea volcano and is still open for business.
However, tourism authorities also admitted that summer bookings on Big Island had fallen by around 50 percent since the volcano first erupted. The closure of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park alone could cause up to $222 million (€189 million) in lost revenue, with some 2,000 jobs indirectly impacted.
According to the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, tourism is by far the biggest employer on the Big Island, accounting for over 30 percent of private sector jobs.
dm/gsw (AP, Reuters)