COURTESY HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY
Views of the east wall of Halemaumau crater show the emergence of a new gas vent on Monday and Thursday. The Halemaumau crater overlook is circled. Note the large gas plume in the right frame taken on Thursday.
New volcanic vent spewing toxic gas
Fumes might force park to close
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HILO » Sulfur dioxide gas from Kilauea volcano on Thursday reached the highest level ever recorded, leading officials to worry that all of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park might have to be closed if tradewinds are not strong enough blow the gas away.
A plan is being prepared to evacuate all visitors and park employees in case the need arises, said ranger Jim Gale.
Gas from a new vent inside Halemaumau Crater helped boost output to 2,000 metric tons a day on Thursday, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said. The norm last year was up to 200 tons a day.
The cause of the increase in sulfur dioxide emissions is unclear, said Jim Kauahikaua, scientist in charge at the observatory. "While it is a remote possibility, a summit eruption is not expected because other harbingers of summit activity have not occurred," he said. "We continue to monitor for signs such as inflation and increased earthquake activity at Kilauea summit."
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COURTESY AMOS MEYERS
Volcanic emissions were starting to worsen last month, as shown in this Feb. 13 photo of Kilauea Caldera, looking toward Halemaumau Crater. The air is full of sulfur dioxide plumes.
HILO » A new sulfur dioxide gas vent at the summit of Kilauea volcano is contributing to the highest levels of the gas ever recorded in the area and raising concerns that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park might have to be closed.
Weather forecasts predict that tradewinds for the next 10 days will be strong enough to carry the poisonous gas southwest, away from the summit, said ranger Jim Gale.
But any decrease in wind could allow a gas buildup that could force closure of the entire park, including the Volcano House hotel, Kilauea Military Camp resort and employee housing, Gale said.
"We're planning for evacuation if needed. We just want to have no surprises," he said.
The gas vent broke out Wednesday in the lower east wall of Halemaumau Crater, a pit inside the broad bowl of Kilauea Caldera. That is an area where a 4-mile segment of Crater Rim Drive had already been closed for several weeks because of elevated gas levels.
Typical emission rates of sulfur dioxide in the area last year were 150 to 200 metric tons per day. In December the figures started to rise.
By mid-February, when the road was closed, the figures were 600 to 1,000 metric tons a day, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said.
On Wednesday the new vent raised the level to 1,500 metric tons per day. Thursday the measurement went to 2,000 metric tons per day, the highest ever recorded since measurements began there in 1979.
That is well above the 1,200 metric tons spewed during the summit eruption of Kilauea in 1982, Gale said.
Sulfur dioxide levels are also high at Puu Oo, the former eruptive vent about 10 miles east of the summit, but there are no people in the immediate area to be disturbed by the gas, Gale said.
The current situation is "like having Puu Oo right here at the summit," Gale said.
In terms of parts per million, the measurements went from 1 ppm a few weeks ago to 40 ppm this week along the closed portion Crater Rim Drive, the observatory said.
Sulfur dioxide reacts with air, moisture and sunlight to create tiny droplets of sulfuric acid, the observatory said. Those acid droplets easily get into human lungs and remain there, the observatory said.
The gas is one of six "criteria pollutants" regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Factories, power plants and other industrial sources are required to regulate their output of SO2 to prevent possible negative effects on human health and the environment," the observatory said.
The gas can cause breathing problems, especially for the very young, seniors or people weakened by other conditions.
Why the gas has increased and what it could signal for the future are not yet clear, the observatory said.
Increased gas can be associated with an eruption, as took place in 1982, but a summit eruption remains "a remote possibility," the observatory said.
Other signals needed to predict a coming eruption, such as weak shaking of the ground called harmonic tremor, have not been discerned, the observatory said.
Kilauea's noxious fumes on the rise
Scientists on the Big Island have recorded the highest emission rates of sulfur dioxide at the summit of Kilauea Volcano since measurements began in 1979.
Here is a look at the increasing levels of the gas since the emission rate began increasing in late December (note that a metric ton is 2,205 pounds):
» Thursday: 1,800 to 2,000 metric tons
» Wednesday: 1,500 metric tons
» Mid-February: 600 to 1,000 metric tons a day
» Before late December: 150-200 metric tons a day
Source: Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Associated Press