Alaska volcano spews thick ash cloud, triggering aviation warning

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – An Alaska volcano that has been rumbling since midsummer shot ash about 5 miles (8 km) into the sky on Sunday, triggering a warning to aviators and dusting one small fishing village, officials reported.

Shishaldin Volcano, one of the most active in Alaska, kicked out a plume of ash that satellite imagery detected as high as 28,000 feet (8,535 m) above sea level, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the joint federal-state-university office that tracks the state’s many volcanoes.

The plume stretched about 90 miles (145 km) as of midday, blowing mostly east and over the Gulf of Alaska, said the observatory.

A sprinkling of ash was reported in the tiny Aleutian village of False Pass, about 23 miles (37 km) northeast of the Shishaldin, said David Fee, the observatory’s University of Alaska Fairbanks coordinating scientist.

“Someone reported some ash on their windshield,” he said.

False Pass has a year-round population of about 40, according to state data, but draws many more people during the summer fishing season.

Also pouring out of Shishaldin’s caldera on Sunday was a stream of red-hot lava, the observatory reported.

Shishaldin has been in an on-and-off eruptive phase since July, occasionally dribbling lava down its snowy flanks and puffing ash and steam.

Most of the ash production has been relatively minor, but Sunday’s event was serious enough to warrant a “code red” warning for air traffic to avoid the area, the second such warning in the volcano’s current eruptive phase, Fee said.

“It’s a higher plume. It’s sustained. And it’s a higher concentration,” he said.

Shishaldin, about 680 miles (1,095 km) southwest of Anchorage, is the tallest mountain in the Aleutian chain, rising to 9,373 feet (2,857 m) in elevation. The upper two-thirds of the spherical peak are usually cloaked year-round in snow and ice, according to the observatory.

It is in a cluster of frequently erupting volcanoes in the eastern Aleutians. “This is the most active region in Alaska for volcanic activity,” Fee said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Rumbling volcano shuts down Philippine capital

By Karen Lema and Enrico Dela Cruz

MANILA (Reuters) – Schools and businesses shut across the Philippine capital on Monday as a volcano belched clouds of ash across the city and seismologists warned an eruption could happen at any time, potentially triggering a tsunami.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes around Taal, one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, which spewed ash for a second day from its crater in the middle of a lake about 70 km (45 miles) south of central Manila.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Lemery, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“The speed of escalation of Taal’s volcanic activity caught us by surprise,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told reporters.

“We have detected magma. It’s still deep, it hasn’t reached the surface. We still can expect a hazardous eruption any time.”

Authorities warned that an eruption could send a tsunami surging across the lake.

More than 24,000 people have been evacuated from the volcanic island and the area immediately around it – normally a popular tourist spot.

“We got scared of what could happen to us, we thought the volcano was going to erupt already,” said Marilou Baldonado, 53, who left the town of Laurel with only two sets of clothes after she saw the huge ash cloud build.

Some tourists ignored the dangers and traveled to towns close to the volcano to get a better look.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Agoncillo, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience for us,” Israeli tourist Benny Borenstein told Reuters as he snapped photos of Taal from a vantage point in Tagaytay City, about 32 km away.

To the southwest of the volcano, the towns of Agoncillo and Lemery were coated by a thick layer of ash, making roads impassable.

Agoncillo’s mayor, Daniel Reyes, told DZMM radio some homes and part of a building had collapsed under the weight of the fallen ash.

In nearby Talisay Batangas, Vice Governor Mark Leviste said rain had turned ash to mud and trucks were needed to evacuate more people from remote communities.

“There is no power. Even water was cut, so we are in need of potable water,” he said. “We are in need of face masks.”

SHUT DOWN

In Manila, masks sold out quickly after residents were advised to wear them if they had to go out. Some wore handkerchiefs across their faces as they breathed air tainted by the smell of sulfur.

Streets that would normally be snarled with some of the world’s worst traffic were largely empty in the city of 13 million people.

Schools and government offices were closed on official orders. The stock exchange suspended trading and many private businesses shut for the day too.

Classes in some cities in the capital will remain suspended on Tuesday, officials said.

Lightning strike in the midst of Taal volcano explosion is seen in Lipa City, Philippines January 12, 2020 in this picture obtained from social media. Cheslie Andal/via REUTERS

Flight operations at Manila’s international airport partially resumed, authorities said, after more than 500 flights were delayed or canceled on Sunday.

One flight that did land carried President Rodrigo Duterte, who was coming back from his home city of Davao in the southern Philippines. He had been unable to fly on Sunday because visibility was so low.

One of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,500 people and one in 1754 lasted for a few months.

The island has been showing signs of restiveness since early last year.

The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

(Additional reporting by Peter Blaza; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Stephen Coates and Andrew Heavens)

Six bodies retrieved from New Zealand volcanic island, two still missing

Six bodies retrieved from New Zealand volcanic island, two still missing
By Charlotte Greenfield and Praveen Menon

WHAKATANE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – A New Zealand military team in gas masks and hazmat suits recovered six bodies on Friday from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, as doctors worked to save badly burned survivors.

An eight-person bomb disposal squad set off before dawn and spent four hours on White Island, which experts said could erupt again.

Six of the eight bodies on the island were successfully retrieved and taken to a naval patrol vessel for transfer to the mainland for disaster victim identification.

“Today was all about returning them to their loved ones,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a media conference in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town where about 100 family and local community members prayed and sang together.

“We know that reunion won’t ease that sense of loss, of suffering because I don’t think anything can but we felt an enormous sense of duty as New Zealanders to bring their loved ones home.”

The team was unable to find and recover the remaining two bodies as the cumbersome protective equipment they needed to wear slowed down the tricky operation.

Police said dive teams deployed in the waters around the island, which is also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, had not found anything and would try again on Saturday.

“It’s not over yet,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters in Whakatane, some 50 km (30 miles) west of the island.

Pictures showed pairs of military personnel wearing breathing apparatus scouring the lunar-like landscape as inflatable dinghies and a police launch waited offshore.

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash, steam and gases over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, U.S., German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.

The official death toll stands at eight as the bodies on the island have been classified as missing until they are formally identified. More than two dozen more people are in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.

A blessing was held at sea with the victims’ families before the mission was launched.

Locals Boz Te Moana, 24 and Michael Mika, 28, came to support families gathered at the marae, a Maori community center, in Whakatane.

“Where we come from we don’t leave anyone behind, no one gets left behind,” Te Moana said of his Maori community. “We all move as one.”

Relatives sat among the coffins of those who were recovered on Friday, not knowing which belonged to their family member, senior legislator Kelvin Davis told reporters.

“But it was just an opportunity, as they said, regardless of whether we’re from Australia or New Zealand or wherever, that the moment we’re one whanau (family) and will mourn everybody as if they are our own.”

GRAPHIC: Volcanic Eruption in New Zealand (https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4PR2DX/nzl-volcano.jpg)

SKIN SUPPLIES

Australians made up the majority of the tourists visiting the island at the time of the explosion and those recovered on Friday.

Many of them were passengers on a Royal Caribbean Cruises ship on a day tour to the island.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said 11 injured Australians have been transferred from overloaded burns units in New Zealand, with one more to be repatriated in the “coming days”.

Peter Haertsch, the doctor in charge of the burns unit caring for the returned Australians, said they been exposed to fast-moving clouds of very hot volcanic gas, pumice and ash.

“They have suffered severe contact skin burns with severe injuries due to inhalation of gas and ash, and we are looking at extensive and intensive care for these patients, some of whom are still in a life-threatening condition,” Haertsch said in an emailed statement.

Payne said Australia was working with the United States and other countries to source some of the urgently needed 1.2 million square cms (186,000 square inches) of skin, an amount that far exceeds annual donations in New Zealand and Australia.

“It’s jarring for us to hear just the sheer scale of that need because it amplifies just how horrific some of the injuries are,” Ardern told ABC Radio.

QUESTIONS OVER RISK

Authorities had faced growing pressure in recent days from families of some victims to recover the bodies as soon as possible.

There has also been criticism that tourists were allowed on the island at all, given the risks of an active volcano.

Pressed to discuss whether the island should have been open, Ardern said she didn’t want to preempt an inquiry which has been launched.

“I think families would be best served by that, rather than speculation.”

GRAPHIC: Volcanic alerts for White Island since 1995 (https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4Q22ES/New-Zealand-Volcano-Alerts.jpg)

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Whakatane, Praveen Menon and John Mair in Wellington and Colin Packham in Sydney; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

‘No signs of life’ on New Zealand volcano island after disaster ‘waiting to happen’

By Charlotte Greenfield

WHAKATANE, New Zealand (Reuters) – New Zealand said on Tuesday that eight people were missing, presumed dead, a day after a volcano unexpectedly erupted off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, killing at least five people and injuring more than 30.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Whakatane, a town near the volcanic White Island tourist attraction, that aerial reconnaissance flights had shown no signs of life.

“It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island – those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption,” Ardern told reporters.

New Zealanders and tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the missing and injured, she said, adding that there were two explosions in quick succession. No further details were given.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief in this moment at time and in your sorrow,” Ardern said.

Waikato Police Superintendent Bruce Bird said 47 people visited the island on Monday – five were confirmed to have been killed and eight were missing. Some 31 were in hospital and three had been discharged.

Police said they did not expect to find any more survivors from the eruption, which spewed a plume of ash thousands of feet into the air. Many of the injured were in critical condition, most from burns, Ardern said.

White Island is about 50 km (30 miles) from the east coast of North Island and huge plumes were visible from the mainland. Volcanologists said the ash plume shot 12,000 feet (3,658 m) into the air.

“White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years,” said Ray Cas, a professor emeritus at Monash University, in comments published by the Australian Science Media Centre.

“Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter.”

Bird said rescue services were working to return to the island and were relying on advice from scientific and technical experts meeting in Wellington on Monday.

“We will only go to the island if it is safe for our people,” said Bird.

Many day tours visit the island regularly. One from a 16-deck cruise liner, Ovation of the Seas, was there at the time.

Ardern said helicopters made a deliberate decision to fly to the island to rescue survivors immediately after the eruption. Graphic: Volcanic Eruption in New Zealand, https://tmsnrt.rs/38iBpyN

“I want to acknowledge the courageous decision made by first responders and those pilots who in the immediate rescue effort made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out,” she Ardern.

“As a result of their efforts a number of people were rescued from the island.”

‘THIS IS NOT A JOKE’

Janet Urey, 61, a nurse from Richmond, Virginia, said her son Matthew, 36, was injured in the eruption while on honeymoon.

“The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on. It was my son. He said, Mom…this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We’re at the hospital with severe burns.”

She has been frustrated by the lack of information from the cruise ship he was on and from authorities.

“I have not heard a word from the cruise people. I just want the word out there. I’m not really happy with how this has been handled,” she added.

A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand science agency GeoNet showed groups of people walking toward and away from the rim inside the crater, from which white vapor constantly billows, in the hour leading up to the eruption.

Michael Schade, an engineering manager from San Francisco, was one of the tourists who made it off the island just before the eruption.

“This is so hard to believe,” Schade said in a video posted on Twitter as he sped away from the island by boat. “Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before.”

Geological hazard tracker GeoNet raised the alert level for the White Island volcano in November due to an increase in volcanic activity.

The volcano’s last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulfur miners. There was a short-lived eruption in April 2016. Daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.

‘Whakaari’, as it is known in the Maori language, is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years, GeoNet said.

About 70 percent is under the sea, making the massive volcanic structure the largest in New Zealand.

(Additionial reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)

Italy’s Mount Etna erupts, authorities close airport

CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) – Italy’s Mount Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, erupted on Monday, sending a huge column of ash into the sky and causing the closure of Catania airport on Sicily’s eastern coast.

A chain of around 130 earth tremors have rocked the volcano since around 0800 GMT on Monday, Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology said, with the strongest posting a magnitude of 4.0.

There were no reports of any injuries.

The 3,330 meter high volcano can burst into spectacular action several times a year, spewing lava and ash high over the Mediterranean island. The last major eruption was in 1992.

(Reporting by Giselda Vagnoni, writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Tsunami kills at least 222 in Indonesia after Krakatau eruption

Residents inspect body bags as they search for family members outside a local health center following a tsunami at Panimbang district in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, December 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adi Kurniawan

By Johan Purnomo and Adi Kurniawan

PANDEGLANG, Indonesia (Reuters) – A tsunami killed at least 222 people and injured hundreds on the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra following an underwater landslide believed to have been caused by the erupting Anak Krakatau volcano, officials said on Sunday.

Hundreds of homes and other buildings were “heavily damaged” when the tsunami struck, almost without warning, along the rim of the Sunda Strait late on Saturday, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the disaster mitigation agency, said.

Thousands of residents were forced to evacuate to higher ground. By 5:40 p.m. (1040 GMT), the disaster agency had raised the death toll to 222, with 843 injured and 28 missing.

A car is seen among debris after the area was hit by a tsunami in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, December 23, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A car is seen among debris after the area was hit by a tsunami in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, December 23, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

It has been a torrid year for the vast archipelago that sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Successive earthquakes flattened parts of the tourist island of Lombok in July and August, and a double quake-and-tsunami killed more than 2,000 people on Sulawesi island in September.

As night fell on Sunday, rescue efforts continued but workers and ambulances were finding it difficult to reach affected areas because some roads were blocked by debris from damaged houses, overturned cars and fallen trees.

TV images showed the seconds when the tsunami hit the beach and residential areas in Pandeglang on Java island, dragging with it victims, debris, and large chunks of wood and metal.

Coastal residents reported not seeing or feeling any warning signs on Saturday night, such as receding water or an earthquake, before waves of 2-3 meters (6-10 feet) washed ashore, according to media.

Authorities said a warning siren went off in some areas.

The timing of the tsunami, over the Christmas holiday season, evoked memories of the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by an earthquake on Dec. 26 in 2004, which killed 226,000 people in 14 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Øystein Lund Andersen, a Norwegian holidaymaker, was in Anyer town with his family when Saturday’s tsunami struck.

“I had to run, as the wave passed the beach and landed 15-20 meters inland. Next wave entered the hotel area where I was staying and downed cars on the road behind it,” he said on Facebook. “Managed to evacuate with my family to higher ground through forest paths and villages, where we are taken care of by the locals.”

EVACUATION WARNING

Authorities warned residents and tourists in coastal areas around the Sunda Strait to stay away from beaches and a high-tide warning remained in place through until Dec. 25 as officials tried to determine the exact cause of the disaster.

“Those who have evacuated, please do not return yet,” said Rahmat Triyono, an official at the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG).

President Joko Widodo, who is running for re-election in April, said on Twitter that he had “ordered all relevant government agencies to immediately take emergency response steps, find victims and care for the injured”.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla told a news conference the death toll would “likely increase”.

The western coast of Banten province in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island, was the worst-hit area, Nugroho told reporters in Yogyakarta. He also said at least 35 people were reported dead in Lampung in southern Sumatra.

The Red Cross send out equipment and aid from its regional warehouse in Banten including water, tarpaulins, shovels and axes, as well as hygiene kits, it said in a statement.

A man stands among ruins after a tsunami hit at Carita beach in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, December 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adi Kurniawan

A man stands among ruins after a tsunami hit at Carita beach in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, December 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adi Kurniawan

“WASHED AWAY”

Television footage showed the seconds when the tsunami washed away an outdoor stage where a local rock band was performing for hundreds of guests at an end-of-year party for state utility company PLN.

Four of the musicians from the band, Seventeen, were killed, along with 29 PLN employees and relatives.

“The water washed away the stage which was located very close to the sea,” the band said in a statement. “The water rose and dragged away everyone at the location. We have lost loved ones, including our bassist and manager … and others are missing.”

Police officers rescued a young boy who was trapped in a car buried under fallen trees and rubble for nearly 12 hours, according to a video of his rescue posted on Twitter by the Indonesian National Police.

The tsunami was caused by “an undersea landslide resulting from volcanic activity on Anak Krakatau” and was exacerbated by abnormally high tide because of the full moon, Nugroho said.

Anak Krakatau, an active volcano roughly halfway between Java and Sumatra, has been spewing ash and lava for months. It erupted again just after 9 p.m. on Saturday and the tsunami struck at around 9.30 p.m., according to BMKG.

Ben van der Pluijm, an earthquake geologist and a professor in the University of Michigan, said the tsunami may have been caused by a “partial collapse” of Anak Krakatau.

“Instability of the slope of an active volcano can create a rock slide that moves a large volume of water, creating local tsunami waves that can be very powerful. This is like suddenly dropping a bag of sand in a tub filled with water,” he said.

The eruption of Krakatau, previously known as Krakatoa, in 1883 killed more than 36,000 people in a series of tsunamis.

Anak Krakatau, which means child of Krakatau, is the island that emerged from the area once occupied by Krakatau, which was destroyed in 1883. It first appeared in 1927 and has been growing ever since.

(Additional reporting by Fanny Potkin, Tabita Diela, Jessica Damiana, Wilda Asmarini in Jakarta; Writing by Fergus Jensen, Kanupriya Kapoor and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Alison Williams)

Thousands evacuated as Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupts

A general view shows Fuego volcano (Volcano of Fire) erupting as seen from San Juan Alotenango, outside of Guatemala City, Guatemala November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Nearly 4,000 people were evacuated on Monday from areas around Guatemala’s Fuego volcano, which began violently erupting overnight, the country’s disaster agency Conred said.

The volcano spewed out dangerous flows of fast-moving clouds of hot ash, lava and gas early Monday and more than 2,000 people had taken refuge in shelters so far, officials from the agency told reporters. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

More dangerous flows of hot ash and lava could be expelled, said Juan Pablo Oliva, the head of the country’s seismological, volcanic and meteorological institute Insivumeh.

In June, explosive flows from Fuego killed more than 190 people.

This is the fifth eruption so far this year of the 3,763-meter (12,346-feet) volcano, one of the most active in Central America, about 19 miles (30 km) south of Guatemala City.

(Reporting by Enrique Garcia; Editing by David Gregorio)

Hawaii volcano eruption slows to virtual halt after more than three months

FILE PHOTO: Lava erupts in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – The destructive lava eruption at the foot of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has slowed to a virtual halt in recent days for the first time in over three months, geologists said on Monday, although it was too soon to tell what might happen next.

The lone volcanic fissure that was still active last week has dwindled from a fountain of molten rock to a bubbling pond of lava no longer spilling out of the blackened cone surrounding it, said Tina Neal, chief scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Levels of sulfur dioxide gas vented from the fissure, located on the lower east flank of Kilauea, about 25 miles (40 km) from its summit crater, have also dropped dramatically, she said.

The subdued activity there coincided with another major collapse in the outer wall of the summit crater last Thursday, followed by a final flurry of earthquakes before the peak of the volcano grew still.

“The system appears to have almost shut down completely over the course of a couple of days,” Neal told reporters on a conference call. She said it was “all consistent with something turning off the spigot to the surface.”

At this point, the volcanic reservoir at the bottom of the summit crater appeared “significantly drained” of magma – the term for molten rock before it erupts – that was feeding the lava vents downslope at the surface.

At the height of Kilauea’s current eruption, which began on May 3, a total of two dozen fissures had opened in the ground at the foot of the volcano, in an area scientists call the lower east rift zone. But only one vent, dubbed Fissure 8, was still active last week.

It was a river of lava from Fissure 8 that had crept eastward to the ocean, engulfing two seaside housing developments before pouring into the Pacific. Hundreds more dwellings have been swallowed closer to the eruption site.

FILE PHOTO: Lava fragments falling from lava fountains at fissure 8 are building a cinder-and-spatter cone around the erupting vent, with the bulk of the fragments falling on the downwind side of the cone as it continues to feed a channelized lava flow that reaches the ocean at Kapoho during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S. June 11, 2018. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Lava fragments falling from lava fountains at fissure 8 are building a cinder-and-spatter cone around the erupting vent, with the bulk of the fragments falling on the downwind side of the cone as it continues to feed a channelized lava flow that reaches the ocean at Kapoho during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S. June 11, 2018. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

The property losses marked the most destructive eruption event of Kilauea or any other volcano in Hawaii’s recorded history.

Neal said it remains to be seen whether the reduced flow at Fissure 8 will turn out to be a brief pause or an extended lull, or whether other vents will reactivate. A similar 88-day eruption in the lower east rift zone in 1955 was punctuated by one pause of five days and one lasting 16 days, Neal said.

Neal said scientists would be surprised if the summit crater produced any new major eruptions in the near future.

The current shift in volcanic activity happened as Hurricane Hector churned across the Pacific toward Hawaii, with forecasters predicting it would skirt past the southern coast of the Big Island on Wednesday.

Neal said the storm would have no effect on the volcano, except for the possibility of large steam clouds producing “white-out” conditions in areas where heavy rain falls on top of molten lava that has yet to thoroughly cool.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Tait)

Geologists eye Hawaii volcano for signs eruption may be easing

FILE PHOTO: Lava fragments falling from lava fountains at fissure 8 are building a cinder-and-spatter cone around the erupting vent, with the bulk of the fragments falling on the downwind side of the cone as it continues to feed a channelized lava flow that reaches the ocean at Kapoho during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S. June 11, 2018. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Geologists are keeping a close eye on the crater of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano and a lava-spouting cone on its flank for possible signs a nearly three-month eruption may be slowing.

Up until Thursday, Kilauea had not had an explosion in 53 hours, the longest break in such activity since May, government geologists said on the last in a series of regularly scheduled news briefings since the eruption began on May 3.

Down Kilauea’s east side, a lava channel flowing from its fissure 8 cone has turned sluggish and its level has dropped, said U.S. Geological Survey geologist Janet Babb.

Could the lava eruption in the southeast corner of Hawaii’s Big Island be easing after destroying over 700 houses and forcing thousands to flee their homes?

“That really is the million-dollar question right now,” said Babb. “We’re watching this closely. I think it all depends what we see after the next collapse (explosion) event.”

Right on cue, a collapse explosion came during the news briefing, kicking out the equivalent energy of a 5.4 magnitude earthquake.

It was the 58th such event in the current eruption cycle as magma steadily drains from the volcano’s summit lava reservoir, causing its crater to collapse.

The USGS released a report last week saying the eruption could last months or years and a main hazard was a possible collapse of fissure 8, or a blockage or breach in its lava channel, that could send some or all lava in a new direction.

Geologist Rick Hazlett of the University of Hawaii at Hilo said material breaking off the cone had so far been flushed down the channel in “lava bergs.”

He did not see any more structures in danger, other than the Pohoiki boat landing, which is 500 feet (152 meters) from the lava.

“We’re not very worried at the moment about the loss of further facilities,” said Hazlett. “This can be maintained for many months without the risks of a major diversion.”

As to whether crater explosions are winding down, Babb said it was too early to say.

“We need to wait and watch and see how the next collapses occur, to see if this interval between collapses is indeed increasing, or if this was an anomaly,” she said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

Lava tours stir mixed feelings around erupting Kilauea

FILE PHOTO: Lava destroys homes in the Kapoho area, east of Pahoa, during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Jolyn Rosa

HONOLULU(Reuters) – Shane Turpin has for years taken tourists on boat rides to see lava oozing lazily down Kilauea’s slopes and into the Pacific Ocean several miles away.

But when the river of molten rock burned down his and his neighbors’ houses after the volcano erupted in May, he briefly stopped the tours.

“When the houses on the coastline were burning, we took those ships off,” said Turpin, 39, who runs Lava Ocean Tours out of Hilo. “Those were my neighbors, I actually lived there.”

But like many on the island trying to rebuild a life amid the destruction, he went back to work, catering to increased demand from tourists eager to witness the latest eruption of one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

“Life always provides different opportunities; you either accept things and go forward with them or you don’t,” he said.

Kilauea has shown no signs of quieting since it first began erupting on May 3. Lava spewing from “Fissure 8” has wiped out scores of homes in Kapoho by the Pacific. Scenic Kapoho Bay, a stop along Turpin’s tours, is now filled with lava.

And, after a short respite, “lava tourism” is booming on the Big Island, with helicopter and boat tour operators trying to please tourists and show respect for thousands of locals who have lost homes or been evacuated.

LAVA TOUR BOOM

Lava tourism has long existed on Hawaii’s Big Island. Visitor numbers spike each time Kilauea, which has erupted almost continuously since 1983, sends a tongue of lava toward the ocean. The current eruption is one of the longest and most intense on record.

Visitor arrivals to the Big Island fell by 1.6 percent in May year-on-year after the eruption, after several cruise ships canceled port calls at Hilo and Kona, the island’s two main cities, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said. Yet tourist spending actually increased by 3.3 percent to $173.9 million in May.

Figures for June have not yet been released.

Boat tours cost around $220 per person, with at least two other outfits competing with Turpin. Half a dozen companies also offer helicopter tours starting at around $300 per seat.

Residents have mixed feelings about noisy tour helicopters that fly over traumatized communities like Leilani Estates and Kapoho Vacationland, which lost hundreds of homes.

“They have helicopters starting as early as six in the morning and they go all day,” said Rob Guzman, 47, an evacuee and guesthouse operator, who recently returned to his Kalapana home after an access road was reopened.

“At the same time, it’s putting more money into the local economy when we’ve been hit very hard,” he added.

Tourists on helicopter tours will see a 180-foot (55-meter) tall lava geyser, an eight-mile 8 miles (13-km) river of molten rock from fissure 8 cascading toward the sea, and a newly made volcanic wasteland pockmarked with the remains of over 650 homes.

It was something Seattle tourist Steve Gaffin could not resist.

“I feel sorry for all the people who’ve lost their homes,” said Gaffin, who planned to see the eruption on a visit to the island with his wife. But he added, “Why would you want to miss this? This is exciting!”

People can only witness the lava from the air or the sea. All lava flow hiking tours have been stopped, and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea is located, is closed to visitors. Over 80 people, some of them locals, have been cited for loitering in lava zones and face penalties of up to $5,000 and a one-year jail sentence.

That leaves some evacuees, displaced and unable to the pay the cost of tours, unable to view the spectacle of lava flows that destroyed their homes or forced them to flee. They are allowed to inspect their homes at regular intervals with a civil defense escort.

“Seeing the lava is a right and part of processing the disaster,” said Hazen Komraus, head of a community association in the Kalapana area, who like many locals wants to see a ground viewing area established.

With this in mind, one helicopter tour company said it was giving any empty seats free of charge to evacuees to join the sightseeing tours and is offering them discounts if they want to hire a helicopter to survey their properties from the air.

“We’ve flown several dozen residents so far and have dozens more on the list,” said Paradise Helicopters Chief Executive Cal Dorn, adding that he also donates up to $20 per seat on tourist flights toward evacuee relief efforts.

(Reporting by Jolyn Rosa; additional reporting by Terray Sylvester and Suzanne Barlyn in Pahoa; additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant and Jonathan Oatis)