Kilauea's Alert Level Was Just Raised To Red - But What Does That Actually Mean?

The lava lake's drainage back into the conduit is causing an uptick in ash generation. HVO/USGS

The United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) has, in the past 24 hours, announced that that the volcano alert level at Kilauea has changed to “WARNING” and the aviation code to “RED” – so what exactly does this mean?

There’s been a lot of misinformation dropped online about this eruption. This has ranged from the curious (erroneous) connection between the perhaps poorly named “Ring of Fire” and Hawai’i – which is nowhere near said ring – to the entirely false idea that a south flank collapse at Kilauea could cause a Pacific-wide tsunami.

The phrase “red alert” is quite evocative and prime miscommunication fodder, so let’s break it down without any hyperbole. In general, this combined alert – which can be applied to a broad range of explosive and effusive eruption styles and volcanoes – means that a “major volcanic eruption is imminent, underway, or suspected with hazardous activity both on the ground and in the air.”

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The reality isn’t quite so scary, though. The details behind the alert change can be found on the USGS update site itself: currently, ash emissions could increase or decrease in intensity depending on what’s going on within the conduit at Kilauea’s summit.

“At any time, activity may become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent,” the USGS explains. The phrase “more explosive” doesn’t mean anything particularly catastrophic, by the way – just more explosive, relative to its current state.

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Dr Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University, told IFLScience that this alert “is an aviation warning because of the ash plume that was being produced yesterday. Ash is terrible for planes so USGS has put out this warning to communicate with them.”

A lot has happened since the eruption began a few weeks back; you can find a detailed account of the ongoing conflagration at the colossal shield volcano’s East Rift Zone (ERZ) here, courtesy of the USGS, and here, courtesy of volcanologist Erik Klemetti. In order to put this latest development into context, however, here are the relevant highlights.

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