Kilauea’s two-part eruption – explosive activity at the summit crater and those fissure effusions on its flanks – can certainly be destructive, especially in the case of the latter. Just recently, a slow-moving lava flow plowed its way through another coastal neighborhood, creating new land as scores of homes were reduced to cinders.
Saying that, it’s hard to deny that it’s aesthetically stunning to watch, just as it’s a fantastic opportunity for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to learn more about the world’s most active volcano. As part of this process, they’ve been using drones – and one has just flown by Fissure 8, a hyperactive site of nature’s most searing incandescence.
Tapping deep reserves of fresh magma, this gas-rich, fluid lava is being propelled continuously out of this fissure, day and night. Reaching temperatures of around 1,116°C (2,040°F), this is essentially as hot as lava on Earth can get.
At the same time, the fissure is raining down so much fresh volcaniclastic material that it’s building a baby cinder cone, a small volcanic feature, that’s already at least 35 meters (115 feet) high. As the drone footage clearly shows, all this activity is feeding a lava channel, which according to the USGS is flowing east into the devastated Kapoho Bay area.
This lava is streaming into the ocean at multiple points, creating that characteristic laze phenomenon: clouds of hydrochloric acid, water vapor, and small shards of volcanic glass. It’s clearly not a good idea for anybody to breathe this in, but anyone with pre-existing respiratory ailments could be in real trouble if they did. Back in 2000, laze exposure led to the deaths of two people.
Another hazard created by Fissure 8 is Pele’s hair. Named after the volcanic deity that calls Hawaii its home, these thin, vitreous fragments are rapidly cooled lava blebs that have been jettisoned into the air and, as they cool and solidify, get stretched by the wind and their own propagation through the sky.
It certainly looks like fine strands of shredded filo dough, but you don’t want any of this near your face. After all, it’s windblown threads of glass, which won’t exactly do wonders to your eyes, skin, bronchial tubes, or even your car’s windshield.
The USGS reports that “the northern lobe of the Fissure 8 flow appears to have stalled with only traces of smoke at the flow front, although there is some incandescence in the finger of that lobe that advanced along a low graben [a depressed block of Earth's crust between faults] a few nights ago.”
At the same time, they note that no other fissures are active at present.
"The eruption in the Lower East Rift Zone is a really standard progression for eruptions at Kilauea," Dr Wendy Stovall, a senior volcanologist with the USGS, told IFLScience. "Typically fissures form, then eventually activity is focused down into a single point-source location.
"For this eruption it is Fissure 8," she said, adding that "it's more profuse than others and has been longer lived than others."
Whenever this particular eruption comes to an end, it’s clear that it’s left its mark on Big Island.
New land has been created, the drainage of the summit crater’s lava lake has caused it to collapse and expand by at least one order of magnitude – and most significantly, lava has destroyed entire neighborhoods. Fortunately, thanks to the stellar work of the USGS and the authorities, there have been zero casualties so far.
In fact, far from just advancing our scientific knowledge, these drones have actually saved lives.