Hottest, Fastest Lava Yet Prompts Further Evacuations In Hawaii

Residents of two Big Island communities have been advised to evacuate, as fast-moving magma from the Kilauea volcano threatens the few remaining escape routes. "Heed evacuation orders," warned Hawaii's mayor, "or you're on your own."

Lava flow from fissure 8. The lava channel was estimated to be about 30m wide. Photo: USGS

For the residents of Hawaii's Lower Puna community, Mount Kilauea is proving to be an unrelenting foe. Since the eruptions began on May 3, at least 22 fissures have opened up, spewing lava across 2000 acres of land. Around 75 homes have been destroyed, including 20 over the last several days. Over 2500 people have had to evacuate, and more than 300 people are currently staying in emergency shelters.

At the Pahoa Community Center, officials are now bracing for a new wave of volcano refugees. At 6:00PM local time yesterday, Hawaii's Civil Defence Agency issued the following advisory:

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reports that lava from several fissures continues to move through Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and towards the Kapoho area. Residents of Kapoho Beach Lots and Vacationland are advised to evacuate due to the possibility of lava cutting off access to Beach Road near Four Corners. One lava flow is approximately 2 ½ miles from Four Corners and a second is about a half-a-mile from Highway 137, north of Ahalanui County Park.

The mayor of Hawaii County, Harry Kim, chimed in, saying those who refuse to heed the evacuation warnings will be "on their own". He also issued a second emergency proclamation in response to the ongoing eruption in the Lower Puna area.

Earlier, lava from Fissure 8 reached Highway 132, which leads from Pahoa's commercial centre to nearby communities and farmlands to the east. A fast-moving lava flow crossed the highway yesterday, and started to travel along it. For a while, a portion of Highway 132 transformed into a unholy river of molten rock. The unrelenting flows wrecked the electric utility's equipment along the highway, knocking out power to Vacationland and Kapoho Beach Lots, according to Hawaii County Civil Defence.

Lava that is currently pouring over the surface is now the hottest and most viscous yet. Incredibly, the lava was moving at a clip of 9m a minute. Or as USGS scientist Wendy Stovall explained, the lava was moving fast enough to cover six football fields in an hour.

"This is the hottest lava that we've seen in this eruption, even just a matter of 50 degrees centigrade makes a big difference in how quickly lava flows can move and how they behave once the magma exits the vent," said Stovall, adding, "It can't get hotter than where we are. We are pretty much tapping mantle temperatures right now."

Fissure 8. Notice the homes at bottom left for scale. Photo: USGS

On Wednesday local time, Fissure 8 was seen spouting lava over 60 to 75m into the air. Lava pouring out from this fissure moved to the northeast and crossed Highway 132 on Thursday afternoon local time. The flow covered almost 800m in less than 90 minutes, but has since slowed down, as its wide channel now seems to be delaying lava from feeding the flow fronts, according to the USGS.

Highway 132 is now closed, but another major passageway, Beach Road (just east of Highway 137), is also at risk of "possible lava inundation", an event that would trap people in the area.

In addition to noxious volcanic gases, the fissures are also producing a phenomenon known as "Pele's hair" - sharp, thin strands of volcanic glass fibres. Named after the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, this substance is produced when lava spatter droplets cool rapidly in the air, and it can cause skin and eye irritation.

The Lower Puna region of Hawaii's Big Island is taking a beating right now. And with lava flows from Kilauea not showing any signs of slowing down, the residents of this beleaguered community can only hope this angry monster calms soon.

[USGS, Hawaii Civil Defence, Hawaii Public Radio, AP, CNN]

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