There is no reason for holidaymakers to cancel their trips to the paradise isle of Hawaii. That remains the message from the Pacific island’s tourist board as Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, continues to send plumes of steam and ash thousands of feet into the air, while fast-moving lava flows threaten to cut off key escape routes in the south-east of the island.
The volcano, continuously simmering since 1983, erupted violently a fortnight ago, and the situation on the US state’s Big Island has been growing steadily more serious. Over the weekend the first serious injury of the episode was reported when a man sat on the balcony at his home was hit on the leg by a “lava spatter” - projectile molten rock that can be as large as a fridge.
However, the latest statement from Hawaii Tourism, released last week, says it is only a small area of the island affected, away from the key tourist resorts, and there is no reason for anyone to alter their travel plans.
Kilauea volcano - Hawaii - locator map
Where is Kilauea?
The volcano, which tops out at 1,247m, is on the south-east corner of the largest of the five volcanic islands that make up Hawaii, known as the Big Island. Its name means “spewing” or “much spreading” in Hawaiian.
Kilauea is part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a World Heritage Site. The volcano, as with Hawaii’s two others, Maunaloa and Loihi, was formed by the Pacific tectonic plate moving over the Hawaiian hotspot and creating a chain of volcanoes more than 3,600 miles long.
The volcano is known for providing images of red-hot lava pouring directly into the Pacific Ocean - something that has helped boost tourism in the past.
Is the volcano still erupting?
Yes. The US Geological Survey (USGS) warned when Kilauea first violently erupted at the start of the month that there could be more to come, with rocks blasted from the volcano and fissures created in the ground.
The prediction has held true, with the USGC raising the level of warning to red and reporting “significant lava flows” and “spattering” from a number of cracks created in the volcano-side. Two lava flows have reached the Pacific Ocean, the USGS said, near Highway 137.
Hawaii County Civil Defense has warned residents and visitors to avoid lower Puna, beneath Kilauea, adding that Highway 137 and Kamaili Road are closed. In areas, including Seaview and Malama Ki, people should “take action necessary to limit further exposure” to “elevated levels of sulfur dioxide”.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said that four fissures had merged together in the lower east rift zone and that there is a “continuous line of spatter and fountaining”.
The USGS warns that “this eruption is still evolving and additional outbreaks of lava are possible” and that “at any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles very near the vent”.
Mauna Loa, a volcano to the west of Kilauea, is on a yellow alert, on account of a number of small earthquakes having taken place beneath it.
Is it affecting the air quality in Hawaii?
“Volcanic gas emissions have tripled as a result of the voluminous eruptions,” says the USGC, warning of higher levels of sulphur dioxide in the air.
The tourist board, in its latest update, said that air quality on the island “remains largely unchanged... however, air quality near where the volcanic activity is occurring can be hazardous and light ash fall may be present.”
The eruption of Kilauea has the potential to create a thick smog over the island known as vog (volcanic smog). Vog, a mix of sulphur dioxide and aerosols, can be of particular harm to people with asthma or other respiratory conditions, infants, the elderly and expectant mothers.
According to the monitoring authority at the Hawaii Volanoes National Park, all air quality in the region is measured as “good”. For a period on Sunday, it was marked as “unhealthy for sensitive groups”.
How volcanoes erupt
Has there been acid rain?
Linked to vog, the Hawaiian tourist board says reports of acid rain - droplets of sulphuric acid - on the island have “mischaracterised the severity of its potential effect on human health”. It says that acid rain is common and quotes the Environmental Protection Agency, saying: “Walking in acid rain, or even swimming in a lake affected by acid rain, is no more dangerous to humans than walking in normal rain or swimming in non-acidic lakes.”
Is there a risk of a tsunami?
The USGS has issued a statement denouncing “highly speculative stories [such as] the stability of the south flank of Kīlauea and the potential for a catastrophic collapse that could generate a Pacific-wide tsunami”.
It added: “There is no geologic evidence for past catastrophic collapses of Kīlauea Volcano that would lead to a major Pacific tsunami, and such an event is extremely unlikely in the future based on monitoring of surface deformation. Kīlauea tends to ‘slump’, which is a slower type of movement that is not associated with tsunamis, although localized tsunamis only affecting the island have been generated by strong earthquakes in the past.
“Geologic history combined with models of south flank motion suggest that the likelihood of a catastrophic failure event is incredibly remote.”
Should I cancel my trip?
“There is absolutely no reason at this time for travellers to change or alter their leisure or business plans,” said the Hawaii tourist board last week, which states that all airports on the islands are operating as normal. It says that the volcanic activity is some 100 miles away from the western Kohala and Kona Coasts, where Hawaii’s major resorts are.
“None of the Hawaiian Islands are affected by Kīlauea volcano except a remote area on the island of Hawaii’s east side and the Kīlauea Summit. Out of the island’s 4,028 square miles, only a remote area of less than 10 square miles is affected – Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens Subdivisions in Puna. As a precautionary measure, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (some 40 miles away) has been closed indefinitely as a precaution should a steam explosion occur in the crater.
“All accommodations, activities and attractions on the island are also operating normally, with the exception of those in the area affected by the lava activity.”
It does, however, say that anyone with accommodation in the Lower Puna restricted area should “find alternative accommodations until further notice”.
The tourist board also says the topography of the island between east, where the volcano is, and west, “is unconducive for a natural flow” or lava.
The British Foreign Office has updated its advice to British nationals in the area to follow the advice of local authorities, including any evacuation orders.
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How has the volcano affected tourism on the island?
Ross Birch from the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau told CNN that Kilauea is key to the island’s tourism industry, which welcomes some 9 million visitors a year. “The volcano isn't just our number one attraction - it's the state's number one attraction,” he said.
“So when it shuts down, there's a direct impact on the spending in that area and the island altogether."
The closure of the national park, which welcomes some 2 million visitors a year, will have an impact on the island’s tourists, but the tourism industry will take solace in the fact that May is an off-peak month.
However, early estimates suggest that $1.5million (£1.1m) in spends was lost in the first week following the May 3 eruption.
According to CNN, some hoteliers were reporting a decrease in forward bookings by as much as 50 per cent.
Birch said: “Even the immediate location of the new lava fissures, they're all within about a 10-square-mile radius, and the island is 4,028 square miles. It doesn't affect 90 per cent of our island, let alone the rest of the state.”
There is hope that once the volcano settles down and the lava flows cool, the park will attract more tourists.