White plumes of acid and extremely fine shards of glass billowed into the sky over Hawaii on Sunday as molten rock from the Kilauea volcano poured into the ocean, creating yet another hazard from an eruption that began more than two weeks ago.
Authorities warned the public to stay away from the toxic steam cloud, which is formed by a chemical reaction when lava touches seawater.
So-called laze — a term combining the words “lava” and haze” — is a mix of hydrochloric acid fumes, steam and fine volcanic glass specks created when erupting lava, which can reach 1,093 degrees Celsius, reacts with sea water, Hawaii County Civil Defense said in a statement.
The warnings also cautioned that reports of toxic sulfur dioxide gas being vented from various points around the volcano had tripled, urging residents to “take action necessary to limit further exposure.”
Further upslope, lava continued to gush out of large cracks in the ground that formed in residential neighbourhoods in a rural part of Hawaii’s Big Island. The molten rock formed rivers that bisected forests and farms as it meandered toward the coast.
At the volcano’s summit, two explosive eruptions unleashed clouds of ash. Winds carried much of the ash toward the southwest.
Joseph Kekedi, an orchid grower who lives and works about five kilometres from where lava dropped into the sea, said luckily the flow didn’t head toward him. At one point, it was about 1.5 kilometres upslope from his property in the coastal community of Kapoho.
He said residents can’t do much but stay informed and be ready to get out of the way.
“Here’s nature reminding us again who’s boss,” Kekedi said.
Scientists said the steam clouds at the spots where lava entered the ocean were laced with hydrochloric acid and fine glass particles that can irrigate the skin and eyes and cause breathing problems.
The laze from the plume spread as far as 24 kilometres west of where the lava met the ocean on the Big Island’s southern coast. It was just offshore and running parallel to the coast, said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall.
Scientists said the acid in the plume was about as corrosive as diluted battery acid. The glass was in the form of fine glass shards. Getting hit by it might feel like being sprinkled with glitter.
“If you’re feeling stinging on your skin, go inside,” Stovall said. Authorities warned that the plume could shift direction if the winds changed.
The Coast Guard said it was enforcing a safety zone extending 300 metres around the ocean entry point.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Bannon said in a statement Sunday that “getting too close to the lava can result in serious injury or death.”
Gov. David Ige told reporters in Hilo that the state was monitoring the volcano and keeping people safe.
“Like typical eruptions and lava flows, it’s really allowing Madame Pele to run its course,” he said, referring to the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire.
Ige said he was thankful that the current flows weren’t risking homes and hoped it would stay that way.
On Saturday, the eruption claimed its first major injury. David Mace, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who was helping Hawaii County respond to the disaster, said a man was struck in the leg by a flying piece of lava. He didn’t have further details, including what condition the man was in.
Kilauea has burned some 40 structures, including two dozen homes, since it began erupting in people’s backyards in a neighbourhood on May 3. Some 2,000 people have evacuated their homes, including 300 who were staying in shelters.
In recent days, the lava began to move more quickly and emerge from the ground in greater volume.
Scientists say they don’t know how long the eruption will last.
Hawaii tourism officials have stressed that most of the Big Island remains unaffected by the eruption and is open for business.