New videos have emerged online of the volcanic eruption on Hawaii’s Big Island. Hundreds of residents have had to evacuate the lower Puna District and entire neighborhoods are being destroyed as the Kilauea volcano continues to form new fissures and spew molten lava into the streets.
These videos give a much needed perspective on just how devastating and aggressive this natural disaster is. But when magma is bursting from the ground and splashing through the streets forming “lava fountains,” is it safe to be recording video from just a few feet away? Erik W. Klemetti, a volcanologist with Denison University, told me there are definite risks, but that it’s not as dangerous as it might seem on film.
“The lava is moving, but it’s moving relatively slowly, so it’s not like you’re going to get rapidly engulfed by it,” Klemetti told me over the phone.
Klemetti said the intense heat of an active lava flow—about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—would be enough to prevent anyone from getting too close. If someone was unlucky enough to get splashed by a rogue droplet from one of the lava fountains, Klemetti said it wouldn’t be excessively dangerous.
“If you did get a piece of lava splatter on you, you’d probably just get a really bad burn,” he told me.
Kilauea has been an active volcano with flowing lava of some kind or another for more than 35 years, Klemetti said, but what makes this recent eruption notable is that it’s flowing into a residential area and causing so much destruction. It is difficult to predict how long these lava flows could last for, he said. One eruption that began in 1983 continued and spread for decades, wiping out entire communities including Kalapana and Kapa‘ahu. It’s still considered active today.
Because of this, the devastation from a volcanic eruption can be much more insidious than other natural disasters, Klemetti said. With a hurricane or flood, the damage is done in a few days, and rebuilding can begin. With a volcano, that damage slowly spreads over months and years. So when you see these dramatic videos, remember that while the person filming may not be in immediate danger, their homes and communities very well may be.
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