Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupted from its summit before dawn Thursday, shooting a dusty plume of ash about 9,000 metres into the sky.
The explosion came after two weeks of volcanic activity and the opening of more than a dozen fissures east of the crater that spewed lava into neighbourhoods, said Mike Poland, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Hawaii County officials say the volcano on the Big Island exploded at 4:17 a.m. local time.
Residents who live in a nearby town reported light amounts of ash falling following the eruption.
See more images of Thursday’s powerful eruption on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Poland said the explosion, from the Halemaumau crater at the peak of Kilauea, likely only lasted a few minutes and that ash accumulations were minimal, with likely trace amounts near the volcano and in the town, which is named Volcano.
“It’s a stunning turn for people who think of Kilauea as this very gentle volcano that just puts out lava flows,” Poland told CBC News in a separate interview.
“But these explosions fortunately are just being driven by the interaction between water and hot rock, rather than by magma that’s explosively putting gas out into the atmosphere. That’s a much different type of explosion that would be much more powerful.”
Some people in the community closest to the volcano slept through the blast, said Kanani Aton, a spokesperson for Hawaii County Civil Defence, who spoke to relatives and friends in Volcano, which is just a few kilometres northeast of the peak.
A soldier of the Hawaii Army National Guard wears a mask to protect himself from volcanic gases in the community of Pahoa, near the Kilauea volcano, on Thursday.(Terray Sylvester/Reuters)
The town’s 1,500 residents have been told to stay put, according to a spokesperson for the Hawaii Police Department.
“They’ve been told to shelter in place,” Alan Richmond told CBC News. “The trade winds are supposed to pick up this afternoon and, hopefully, blow some of that ash away.”
It’s a different story some 40 kilometres east of the volcano, where open fissures and lava flows have driven about 2,000 residents from their homes. The roads have been blocked and the National Guard is patrolling the area, Richmond said.
“We’re waiting to see if [the eruption] is over or if it’s continuing. The last time this happened” — in 1924 — “it lasted for 17 days. So, you know, when you’re dealing with Mother Nature there is no sure-fire way to be specific about a date.”
At least one person who was awake at the time of the blast heard nothing. Epic Lava tour operator John Tarson is an early riser and said he only learned about the eruption because he received an alert on his phone.
Tarson said the ash plume looked different than others he’s witnessed because of its sheer height. A video he shared on Facebook showed a towering column of ash reaching into a hazy sky.
“What I noticed is the plume was just rising straight into the air, and it was not tipping in any direction,” he said. “We’ve been expecting this, and a lot of people are going to see it and get excited and scared.”
Aircraft have been warned away from the area, and officials will be handing out free masks to prevent people from breathing in volcanic ash.
The lava that has emerged over the last two weeks has destroyed at least 26 homes and 10 other structures.
The Halemaumau crater is within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has been closed since May 11 in preparation for an eruption. A second crater, Puu Oo, collapsed two weeks ago, triggering a series of earthquakes and pushing magma toward the populated southeast coastline.
Officials have said they didn’t expect the explosion to be deadly as long as people remained out of the closed national park.
Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It has been almost continuously active since an eruption in 1790, and this week’s eruption is part of a more active cycle that started in 1983, according to the Hawaii Center for Volcanology at the University of Hawaii. One person was killed by the blast in 1924, which sent rocks, ash and dust into the air.
It’s one of five volcanoes that comprise Hawaii’s Big Island and the only one currently erupting.