Is Hawaii's "gentle giant" volcano, Kilauea, a killer in waiting?
A new assessment of Kilauea's activity suggests that this "quietly erupting" volcano, on Hawaii's Big Island, may simply be in a lull between violent eruptions, according to a report on Discovery News.
"In fact, the volcano has erupted explosively about as often as Mount St. Helens," the report says, without specifying how often Mount St. Helens erupts.
Discovery cites carbon dating of the old eruptions as an indication that "the volcano was explosive for 60 percent of the past 2,500 years. It just happens to be in one of its more peaceful, lava-flow stages at the moment."
So peaceful, it seems, that Hawaiian authorities feel confident enough to allow the volcano's thousands of visitors each year to walk up close to the rivers of lava oozing down the volcano’s slopes, and often into the sea. There’s even a visitor center at the summit, Discovery notes.
Don Swanson, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, has referred to Kilauea as a high-risk area.
“Though the explosions may be smaller, there are a lot more people in the area, so the risk is very high,” he reportedly told a news conference Tuesday at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. “So we have to be very concerned."
And an eruption in 1790 that killed several hundred people makes Kilauea the deadliest volcano active in the United States today, according to Discovery.
When Mount St. Helens, in Washington State, erupted May 18, 1980, 57 people died and nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing, according to the USDA website. According to a BBC report, citing the Washington State Department of Game, "nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear) perished as well as all birds and most small mammals."
Swanson, meantime, has been busy gathering evidence about Kilauea’s "dark side," Discovery reports.
In a TV interview earlier this year, Swanson said:
“The most dangerous part of the explosions is something that is probably least known to people, and that is fact that they can produce clouds that are a mixture of hot ash and gases that can move horizontally across the ground surface at very rapid speeds—hurricane velocity.”
Swanson said he was certain that this kind of surge will happen again, though he suggests that it may likely be "preceded by a dramatic sinking of the crater at the volcano’s summit, which would unfold over the course of several days — providing time to evacuate. Only there could be no going back for centuries."