LIGHT-ENHANCED PHOTO COURTESY HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY
Glowing sulfur stumps brains at volcano site
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HILO » In the 96-year-history of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, geologists have never seen anything exactly like what appeared in the vent that broke open in Halemaumau Crater last week: sulfur that glows in the dark.
What does it mean? Not an eruption. The right signs are not there. But beyond that, the scientists just are not sure.
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HILO » Some observers looking at the new glowing red sulfur vent at Halemaumau Crater poetically see the eye of volcano goddess Pele staring back.
The scientists at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are more inclined toward prose.
"The new Halemaumau crater gas vent displayed dull red incandescence again overnight," their daily report said recently.
Whether their statements about the vent spewing thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide since last week are tinged with poetry or prose, the scientists are clear that they do not entirely understand what is going on.
"That's still under discussion," said seismologist Dave Wilson.
It's not like they never saw similar things before. They use an old Italian word for these sulfur vents, "solfataras."
They plowed through old records of solfataras at Kilauea going back to the founding of the observatory in 1912, said Scientist-in-charge Jim Kauahikaua. If observers ever saw them glow, they did not mention it, he said.
There is nothing mysterious about the cause of the glow. The surrounding rocks are really hot, Kauahikaua said, about 930 degrees Fahrenheit.
But that is cool compared with molten lava, around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
And that is why the "dull red incandescence" of the vent quickly fades from view when daylight comes, while the orange glow of fresh lava is often visible well into the morning, Kauahikaua said.
Whatever is happening, nothing yet says it is going to be an eruption. Wilson's instruments are picking up five to 10 microearthquakes per hour, he said. An eruption would produce more than 40 per hour.
The instruments also are recording tremors, jiggling of the ground, but it is disorderly, Wilson said. An eruption would show harmonic tremors, he said. That is the orderly "sound" of lava moving through a tube like music moving through air in a flute.