Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano located on the Big Island of Hawaii, erupted for the first time since 1984, breaking an extended slumber in which the volcano typically erupts every 16 years. The eruption started at the summit caldera but has since moved down to the North East Rift Zone, with fissures pumping out lava which is then flowing down the slopes of the giant volcano to the north and east. Because the slope of the northeast side is much more gradual than that of the southwest side, it will take time for lava flows to threaten roadways or population centers –if it does at all. However, while lava could impact people on the ground, hazards such as volcanic ash and pele’s hair are impacting people in the air and/or those trying to fly in or out of Hawaii.
Hawaii’s Department of Transportation is urging all passengers with flights to Hilo International Airport (ITO) or the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) to check with their airline prior to heading to the airport due to the volcanic activity at Mauna Loa. Both Southwest Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines have canceled some flights into the Big Island of Hawaii; currently, 9 flights were cancelled into Hilo today with another 4 delayed; Kona airport has no cancellations as of now, but there have been 18 flight delays as of the publication of this report.
NOAA’s Washington DC Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) is responsible for issuing volcanic ash-related alerts to the aviation community for much of the United States, including Hawaii.
Volcanic ash can create significant harm to jet engines that fly through them or boat and automobile engines that ingest ash-filled air. Volcanic ash is hard and abrasive, and can quickly cause significant wear to various airplane parts such as propellers, turbo-compressor blades, and even cockpit windows. Because volcanic ash particles have a low melting point, it can melt in the combustion chamber of a jet engine, creating a ceramic or glass-like glaze that then sticks to turbine blades, fuel nozzles, and combustors. A jet engine that ingests just a small amount of ash could suffer from total engine failure.
Overheating and engine failure is also possible in cars and trucks since volcanic ash can infiltrate nearly every opening in a vehicle. Ash is also very abrasive; ash caught between windshields and wiper blades will scratch and permanently mark the windshield glass, and windows are susceptible to scratching each time they are raised, lowered, and cleaned.
Currently, the VAAC responsible for Hawaii isn’t reporting any new ashfall; the National Weather Service in Honolulu, Hawaii also cancelled the Ashfall Advisory that was in effect earlier today for the entire island of Hawaii. However, volcanic eruptions, especially in their first hours, are very dynamic and things could change quickly and create new ash threats in the near future.
Due to the risk, airlines may proactively delay,cancel, and/or re-route flights to avoid any hazards created by a volcano.
In addition to volcanic ash, there’s also concern that another substance will be carried down-wind of erupting fissures on Mauna Loa: Pele’s Hair. Formed in lava fountains and rapidly moving lava flows, “Pele’s Hair” is a long thin strand of volcanic glass, similar to a strand of fiberglass. And as with fiberglass, great care should be taken not to ingest, breathe, or touch these fibers; because they are sharp, they can cut both outside and inside of your body.
Lava is flowing down the Northeast Rift Zone at this time and USGS scientists aren’t sure when this eruption will end. The 1984 event also erupted from the Northeast Rift Zone and did so from March 25 – April 15. Lava flows from 1984 came close to entering Hilo’s outskirts, but the eruption ended before lava could reach any populated areas.