What The Hell Is "Laze", A Hazard Of The Ongoing Eruption On Hawaii?

Lava from the Fissure 20 complex in the lower East Rift Zone enters the ocean. That white plume there is the 'laze'. USGS via Facebook

The United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is working 24/7 to ensure that lives are protected from the ongoing eruption at and around Kilauea. Remarkably, so far, there’s only been one serious eruption-related injury.

This isn’t easy when the hazards are so numerous, including a relative newcomer to proceedings: Named “laze” – a portmanteau of “lava” and “haze” – it started making an appearance on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s social media accounts, and it’s safe to say it’s not a well-known term. So what exactly is it, and how does one avoid it?

Aside from the more explosive activity at Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u summit crater, most of the eruption’s danger comes from the lava-effusing fissures that have opened up across the East Rift Zone (ERZ). Although the paths of these lava flows are taking a wide range of routes across the region, some flows are – as is expected – terminating in the Pacific Ocean.

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As they tumble into the sea, the lava cools vigorously, releasing a lot of steam. Within this steam is a bunch of hydrochloric and sulfuric acid droplets, as well as plenty of glassy, particularly fine volcanic ash particles.

That’s the “laze”. It’s often observed when Kilauea’s lava meets the sea, but as you may have noticed, there’s a hell of a lot more lava heading seaward than is normal at present. The uptick in laze production across a broader area, as well as people trying to get close to the eruption to witness its incandescent majesty, is likely triggering these new warnings.

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Authorities note that unless you’re nearby the entry point into the sea – which you definitely shouldn’t be if you’ve been heeding proper warnings and instructions – then you’re not at risk. If you are, though, this laze can be dangerous.

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The risks to a person are much the same as those posed by volcanic ash itself, if we put the collapse of building structures and the potential downing of planes aside. These acidic droplets, along with the glassy ash particles, can cause irritation of the eyes, throat, nasal cavities and skin.

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