PAHOA, Hawaii – A Hawaiian volcano that sprays lava for a week, forces about 2,000 residents to evacuate, destroys about two dozen homes, and threatens a geothermal facility that is due to close in the next few days or weeks explode threatens.
Experts fear they could throw up ashes and boulders.
Scientists find that as long as people are not in enclosed areas of a national park, a possible explosion is not possible.
"If it goes up, it will fall," said Charles Mandeville, Volcano Obstacle Coordinator for the US Geological Survey. "You do not want to be under something that weighs 10 tons when it comes out at a speed of 120 miles per hour (193 km / h)."
The added danger of an explosive eruption could present aircraft at one of the Big Island's two major airports and other hazards. The national park around the volcano announced that it would close indefinitely starting from 22 o'clock. Thursday, because of the risks.
"We know that the volcano is capable of doing so," Mandeville said, mentioning similar explosions in Kilauea in 1925, 1790, and four more times in the last few thousand years. "We know that it is a clear possibility."
He would not appreciate the likelihood of such an explosion, but said that the internal volcanic conditions change in a way that could lead to an explosion in about a week. The volcanic internal piping could still prevent an explosion.
If it happens, a summit strike could also release steam and sulfur dioxide gas.
Since May 3, Kilauea has had 36 structures – including 26 houses – destroying lava from chimneys about 40 km east of the summit crater. Fifteen of the vents are now spread through the neighborhoods of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.
Hawaiian Governor David Ige said crews at a geothermal facility near the lava outbreak had, as a precaution, accelerated the removal of combustible fuel. The Puna Geothermal Venture facility had about 50,000 gallons (189,270 liters) of pentane. It was removed early on Thursday.
Barbara Lozano, who lives within a mile of the plant, said she thought twice about buying her property if she knew the risks.
"Why did they let us buy home ownership, did you know it was a dangerous situation, why did they let people build around them?" She asked.
Avani Love, 29, moved from Maui with her four children to the Big Island a month ago. They evacuated their home on May 3 and only found out that it was destroyed when a relative returned to fetch their personal belongings.
Although she is saddened to have lost her home, she also feels a sense of renewal by Pele, the Hawaiian volcanic goddess, to correct overpopulation on the island.
"Everyone comes here," she said. "If you have that, it's Pele's way to clear the house and restore the place, there's beauty and darkness too."
Nobody lives in the immediate vicinity of the summit. Communities three miles away may be showered with pea-sized fragments or pollinated with non-toxic ashes, said Tina Neal, senior scientist at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.
What could happen is no volcanic eruption of gases, but mostly trapped steam from flash-heated groundwater released as in a stone pressure cooker, said volcanologist Janine Krippner of Concord University in West Virginia.
The problem is that the lava lake on the summit of Kilauea is quickly drying up. About 2 meters per hour, Mandeville said
In just over a week, the upper part of the lava lake has disappeared below the surface to almost 970 feet (295 meters) since the crater overflowed, Tom Mandeville said. The lava in the lake falls off because elsewhere in the mountain lava bubbles out of the cracks and thus reduces the pressure on the lava lake.
"That's a big change, it's three football fields going down," said Mandeville
The fear is that it will sink below the subterranean groundwater table – another 1000 feet down, and that would be one Chain of events that could lead to a "very violent" steam explosion, Mandeville said.
At the current rate of change, which is about six or seven days away.
Once the lava falls, overheated rocks could fall into the lava tube. And as soon as the lava falls below the groundwater level, water hits rocks that are up to 2,200 degrees Celsius hot and go into steam. When the water hits the lava, it also steams. And the fallen stones hold this vapor in the air until it blows.
A similar 1924 explosion threw powdered rock, ash, and steam into the sky for up to 8 kilometers, for a few weeks. If there is another explosion, the danger zone could extend about 5 kilometers around the summit, ending up in the national park, Mandeville said.
The small, aptly named city of Volcano, Hawaii, with 2,500 residents, is about 3 miles (4.83 kilometers) from the summit. Janet Coney is the office manager of Kilauea Lodge, an inn and restaurant. She said that USGS officials told her hut employees that they probably would not have to worry about stones that might rain down on them, but they could drop ashes.
Borenstein reported on journalists Audrey McAvoy, Caleb Jones of Washington, DC Haven Daley and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed to this report.