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Dr Janine Kavanagh is a lecturer in earth, ocean and ecological sciences at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on volcanoes, and particularly the spread of magma through the earth’s crust and the consequences for volcanic eruptions.

She appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the ongoing eruption of the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea, the lessons for volcanologists around the world, and its impact on the people of Hawaii.

5 fiery hazards from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano

  1. Lava lurking underground
    Kilauea has been erupting continuously for 35 years. But it is only at the start of May 2018 that “dramatic changes” were becoming obvious in the intensity and location of the volcano’s eruptions.

    Kilauea, says Dr Kavanagh, has two lava lakes: one at the summit, and one along the flank. When the lava from the summit lake suddenly began to disappear, “we started to be able to detect new earthquakes,” she says, “and … deformation of the surface of the earth”.

    She explains: “What’s special about Kilauea is that the magma moves upwards, but it can also move sideways as well.” The result was 20 new fissures on the earth’s surface. “It’s not just passively intruding into … existing cracks. It’s actually making new cracks as well.”
  2. Strange sensations
    As the magma moved underground, stretching out and away from the centre of the volcano, Dr Kavanagh and her colleagues were left monitoring the “huge amounts of energy” involved in the process.

    But she is quick to acknowledge the frightening impact it had on Hawaii’s residents.

    “It must have been really very scary for them,” she says. “Some people were saying that it felt like there was a snake moving beneath the ground… beneath their houses.”
  3. Extreme air pollution
    A regular occurrence on Hawaii, volcanic fog – or “vog” – is one of the most hazardous forms of air pollution.

    When Kilauea burst into activity in May 2018, the vog, which is a mixture of volcanic rock particles and nasty gasses including sulphur dioxide, quickly began to spread.

    Dr Kavanagh explains: “It’s not advised to be close to it at all. As part of the … advisory service, people are being told to evacuate, or to move, or to stay inside… to stay away from the vog.”
  4. Fire fountains
    It may sound like something out of a horror movie, but another consequence of lava spreading underground quickly became apparent – fire fountains. These are spectacular jet-like sprays of liquid lava that can shoot up hundreds of meters into the air. Some occur in short spurts, others can last for hours on end.

    Dr Kavanagh says: “When we had these new fissures forming… I think there might be 23, or something like that… they produce these fire fountains.”

    If that sounds frightening, it’s because it is.
  5. Lava haze
    If new fissures spilling lava onto the streets, volcanic fog, fire fountains, and the feeling of a giant snake underground weren’t enough for Hawaiians to contend with, Kilauea had one last hazard in store.

    As the volcano’s fast-flowing, far-reaching lavas (pahoehoe lavas) reach the sea, it creates a toxic lava haze.

    “New gasses are released as the salts from the water interact with the lava,” says Dr Kavanagh. “You get this ‘laze’, which is like a lava haze.”

    She adds: “There are lots of new scientific questions that are being posed just by this sort of depth of knowledge and data that we’re now gathering. It’s a really exciting time to be a volcanologist.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

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