Scientists at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on Friday downgraded the threat from Kilauea Volcano from the highest level of a “warning” to a “watch” following three weeks of decreasing activity.
After Kilauea created panic and destruction when it began erupting May 3, destroying more than 700 homes in its path, there’s barely been a burp or rumble this month.
With a couple of exceptions, lava has stopped pouring into the ocean since Aug. 6. Since Aug. 2 the summit of Kilauea Volcano has not seen what’s called a “collapse event” in which an exodus of lava caused the walls of the summit to collapse, triggering seismic activity equal to 5.8-magnitude earthquakes.
And Kilauea’s notorious fissure 8 in the heart of the Leilani Estates subdivision, which unleashed a river of 2,000-degree lava that ran to the sea, “continues to calm down, cool down and quiet down,” said Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
Earlier this week “a little pond of lava” remained in fissure 8 that occasionally was “burbling,” Neal said. By Friday no moving lava could be seen, and the top was crusting over with cooling lava.
Changing Kilauea’s status from a “warning” — the country’s highest level for an ongoing volcanic eruption — to a “watch” reflects scientists’ cautious optimism that the end of Kilauea’s latest eruption is near.
“All of us are certainly hopeful that this really is the end of this event,” Neal said. “But we shouldn’t lose site of the fact that it could turn back on. But as time goes on that gets less and less likely.”
Today marks the 100th day that most of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park — Hawaii island’s biggest tourism attraction — has been closed.
Park officials said they’re now using the “lull” in seismic activity to form a team to conduct damage assessments toward a recovery plan, as well as hold community sessions on what the future of the park should look like.
“We have entered the phase of managing the park as if the hazards could return at any time, while maintaining hope that the lull in activity lasts so we can continue the momentum towards eventual reopening,” park Superintendent Cindy Orlando said in a statement. “Before the recent volcanic activity forced us to close the park adjacent to Kilauea, we were grappling with congestion management issues. Do we want to return to that, or do we press the reset button? We want to hear from our communities.”
In all, lava from Kilauea opened 24 fissures, covered more than 6,000 acres of land in Lower Puna, destroyed more than 700 homes in the Leilani Estates and Kapoho areas, and buried or isolated more than 1,600 acres of farms.
For context on the current pause in activity, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on Friday cited breaks during previous eruptions.
An 88-day eruption also along the lower East Rift Zone in 1955 saw “pauses” of five and 16 days. And during the five-year Mauna Ulu eruption, which lasted between 1969 and 1974, there was a “pause” that lasted 3-1/2 months — in 1971.
Even as Kilauea shows signs of slowing, threats remain.
There are still elevated levels of sulfur dioxide — or S02 — around the Lower East Rift Zone, especially around fissure 8.
“And the lava flow field is still a rugged, sharp, angry place,” Neal said. “We can’t just rush back in.”
High levels of S02 caused Lucina and Steve Aquilina to abandon their home on Alapai Street near fissure 8 in a panic around 4:30 a.m. May 28.
“He woke up one night and couldn’t breathe,” Lucina said.
When they arrived at Hilo Medical Center, “the air was so thick in Hilo,” Lucina said. “I just knew we had to get out.”
The Aquilinas own their three-bath, two-bedroom home outright. Except for shards of lava that rained out of fissure 8 and onto their property, they believe it remains undamaged.
But now they’re living in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo owned by Lucina’s sister in Laughlin, Nev., where it’s been an unbearable 120 degrees.
Lucina knows Kilauea has been slowing down, but the Aquilinas still don’t believe the air is safe enough to return home.
“We know that Pele has kind of calmed down somewhat,” Lucina said. “But I’m not going to go back until it’s completely calmed down and there’s no more out-gassing. It really scared the bejesus out of me when I saw my husband having a hard time breathing.”
She called their temporary home in Nevada “hotter than Hades, but at least we can breathe.”
By October or November, Lucina hopes that officials will declare the current threat over.
“We’re planning on coming back and we’re hoping for the best: that the grass gets green again and we can pick up our lives again,” Lucina said.
Elizabeth Kerekgyarto and her roommate Ken Peeler are cautious about letting their guard down after lava from fissure 8 forced them from their rental home just a block away on Leilani Avenue.
The house is still standing, but Kerekgyarto and Peeler are now living in a tiny house along Government Beach Road.
“No one knows if this is just a lull and the activity will resume,” Kerekgyarto said. “The earthquakes have definitely been subsiding. It could be that Madame Pele is taking a break. She might be satisfied for a short while.”
If activity from Kilauea ceases, for the most part, the next move would be to downgrade any threat to “advisory” level, Neal said.
“We’re moving in that direction,” she said.
The lowest level would be “normal,” just like the alert level for Kilauea’s Hawaii island sister volcano, Mauna Loa.
But since the four alert levels were imposed in 2006, Kilauea has never been at “normal,” Neal said.
“We had been at ‘watch’ for a long time,” she said. “When you have a volcano that’s as active as Kilauea, we may not have a good sense of what ‘normal’ means.”