Hawaii, the volcano and the Ironman

For two weeks lava has been flowing from the Kilauea volcano in the south of the Big Island in Hawaii. Houses are on fire, there are earthquakes and huge plumes of smoke. Does the eruption endanger the Ironman?

| May 18, 2018 | NEWS

Kilauea\'s recent eruption is destroying homes and roads on the east part of the Big Island.

Kilauea's recent eruption is destroying homes and roads on the east part of the Big Island.

Photo >U.S. Geological Survey

The television images are seen around the world: On the south side of the Big Island, a huge tear in the ground has affected a  residential area and lava bubbles from tunder the ground, flows over streets, buries a car and sets fire to houses. Tourism is collapsing and our editors keep asking the same question: is the Ironman in danger? A summary of the latest facts:

Where is Kilauea?

The Kilauea volcano is located east of the Big Island in the middle of the Pacific. It was created via a "hot spot," a kind of "cutting torch," which pierced the Pacific continental plate with great heat and created the Hawaiian archipelago. The current activity took place at Leilani Estates near Pahoa. The area is approximately two hours drive from the island's Ironman competition site, Kailua-Kona, on the opposite side the island. (Kona marks the entire northwest coast of the Big Island, Kailua is the main town on the extinct Hualalai Volcano.) The distance between Kailua Kona and Pahoa is about 100 kilometers (as the crow flies). In between are Hualalai and the mighty Mauna Loa, one of the largest mountain masses in the world.

When did the eruption of Kilauea begin?

The current eruption of Kilauea has been going on since January 3, 1983. The volcano has been permanently active for over 35 years, especially in its main crater Halemaumau (which has a visitor's center) and in the Puu Oo. Over the years streets and villages have been affected again and again.

What's happening right now?

After a phase of rising lava levels in the two above-mentioned craters, the levels suddenly dropped in late April. Experts from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory quickly warned that the lava had apparently drained into other channels and would leak elsewhere. This started happening on May 3 in Leilani Estates in the eastern Riftzone (a kind of moat) of Kilauea. To date, about 20 column cracks have formed which have lava flows. These column eruptions were accompanied by a so-called earthquake swarm. Around 2,000 people were evacuated and many roads closed. Forty houses were destroyed and the the population is alarmed that more destruction is on the way.

However, some of the warnings from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory were misinterpreted: The current "Volcano Alert Level" is a "Warning," and only for aircraft - there's a flight ban in the activity zone because the volcanic ash can damage aircraft engines. But this ban is far from being as widespread as was seen in the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland in 2010, which had temporarily disrupted all air traffic over the North Atlantic and across much of Europe.

The Puu Oo crater

The Puu Oo crater

Photo >U.S. Geological Survey

What are the current dangers?

In the eruption area a state of emergency was declared to keep as few people as possible in the region. Even though the activity in the cracks has recently declined, it can increase again at any time. Volcanic gases escape from the cracks that irritate the respiratory tract and are especially dangerous for the elderly, children and people with respiratory problems. Even from the craters, where the lava levels have dropped, there are issues. There have been many explosions in recent days, as parts of the previous crater walls have broken off and fallen into the depths. That's resulted in ash clouds up to 10,000 meters high. Experts warn that the lava could sink below the groundwater level in some places. The incoming water would evaporate on contact with the hot lava which is over 1,000 degrees, triggering further explosions that could hurl several tons of heavy rocks over long distances. There is also an increased earthquake risk around the eruption sites - reaching as far as Kailua-Kona. And finally, depending on the wind, VOG can spread to various areas. Similar to smog, VOG is a cloud of volcanic origin, which, in addition to water and carbon dioxide, contains particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. In the last few years, even during the Ironman period, occasionally brownish clouds of VOG were visible over Kailua-Kona.

The ash cloud over the Halemaumau crater at the top of Kilauea

The ash cloud over the Halemaumau crater at the top of Kilauea

Photo >U.S. Geological Survey

What happens next?

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and other organizations are monitoring the situation around the clock, but can not provide accurate predictions of what is going to happen. The eruption of Kilauea has been going on since 1983 and has changed again and again. Estimates range from the slow end of the eruption to the worst-case scenario of the island's entire eastern flank, which has the liquid lava under it, slipping into the sea. This scenario is not an uncommon happening in the geological history of Hawaii's youngest island.

Smoke columns from the column eruptions at the Leilani Estates

Smoke columns from the column eruptions at the Leilani Estates

Photo >U.S. Geological Survey

What other effects has the eruption had?

Tourism in Hawaii has taken a hit. A number of cruises have canceled the Kailua-Kona stop for their tours, with the now-defunct Volcano National Park (which traditionally had two million visitors a year) gone as a major attraction. It also affects the infrastructure of Kailua Kona. Many triathletes are familiar with activities such as the snorkeling tours on the Body Glove boats, which are being canceled due to the absence of tourists from the cruises. The Ironman Foundation recently donated $ 50,000 to the people directly affected by the outbreak at the Leilani Estates.

Is the Ironman World Championship on October 13, 2018 in danger?

No, not because of the eruption of Kilauea. It remains to be seen how seismic activity, air quality and the tourist industry in the region will be affected. Some experts believe that activity at Mauna Loa is overdue - should this occur on the west part of the island, much of the current Ironman course would be affected. However, there are currently no signs of this.