Hawaii's volcano eruption: is it safe to visit the island?

There is no reason for holidaymakers to cancel their trips to the paradise isle of Hawaii. That is the message from the Pacific island’s tourist board as plumes of steam and ash continue to bellow from the summit of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanos.

The volcano, said to have been continuously simmering since 1983, erupted violently last week, expelling lava flows that destroyed dozens of homes and buildings and prompted the evacuation of some 2,000 residents. A powerful earthquake shook the crater the next day.

Where is Kilauea?

The volcano, which tops out at 1,247m, is to the south-east 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, itself 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 perhaps best-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?

At the time of the eruption, the US Geological Survey (USGS) warned that more, perhaps more explosive, eruptions capable of spraying rocks for miles could be yet to come.

Clouds of ash bellow from Kilauea

Clouds of ash bellow from Kilauea

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The prediction has held true with Kilauea continuing to send reems of ash into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The latest update from the USGS on Tuesday said that “the eruption of ash… has generally increased in intensity”. A Red colour code warning is in place.

“Ash has been rising nearly continuously from the vent and drifting downwind to the southwest,” it said, adding that a “volcanic cloud” is rising to 12,000 feet.

“Ash emission from the Kilauea summit vent will likely be variable with periods of increased and decreased intensity depending on the occurrence of rockfalls into the vent and other changes within the vent.

“At any time, activity may become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent.”

Since the first eruptions, at least 19 fissures have opened in the ground around the volcano, covering acres of land with lava.

Is it affecting the air quality in Hawaii?

“Air quality on the island of Hawaii remains largely unchanged,” said the Hawaiian tourist board. “However, air quality near where the volcanic activity is occurring can be hazardous (S02 – sulphur dioxide) and light ash fall may be present, and officials are continuing to monitor air quality.”

Lava flows from the volcano on Hawaii's east side flow directly into the sea

Lava flows from the volcano on Hawaii’s east side flow directly into the sea

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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 Tuesday, it was marked as “unhealthy for sensitive groups”.

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.”

Should I cancel my trip?

“There is absolutely no reason at this time for travellers to change or alter their leisure or business plans,” says the Hawaii tourist board, 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.

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 volcano national park is one of the island's key draws

The volcano national park is one of the island’s key draws

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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.

The surf industry is running as usual

The surf industry is running as usual

Credit:
Getty

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.

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