Originally published on May 4, this story was updated on Monday, May 7, and Thursday, May 17, to include new details about the ongoing eruption.
The people of Hawaii’s Big Island know Kīlauea’s ways—the volcano, the youngest of five on the island, has been erupting more or less continuously since 1983. But on Tuesday, May 15, after almost two weeks of significant eruptive activity that has destroyed more than three dozen homes and displaced some 2,000 residents in the southeast corner of the Big Island, Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano belched a 12,000-foot-high column of black ash. The violent event prompted the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory (HVO) to bump the island’s aviation color code from orange to red—and prompted residents, travelers, and volcano-watchers around the world to fear that something really big is brewing.
Kīlauea hasn’t had a truly massive explosive event since 1924, when over a period of 18 days in May the volcano flung rocks as heavy as eight tons and a discharged a two-mile-high ash plume that blanketed the town of Pahala, some 20 miles downwind. That eruption rocked the island with hundreds of explosions and earthquakes, but resulted in the death of just one person, a photographer who ventured too close to the action.
What does “Code Red” mean for Hawaii?
“It sounds a little bit alarming,” said Michelle Coombs, a vulcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s really just to say that we see significant amounts of ash from this ongoing activity and to warn aviators about that ash. It doesn’t mean that a really big eruption is imminent.”
By Wednesday, Kīlauea’s Overlook crater had calmed somewhat, but the HVO threat level remained elevated. In its statement regarding the color-code escalation, the agency noted: “At any time, activity may become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent.” To illustrate the point, the USGS released an image of a two-foot-long rock, cracked in half, that had been hurled from the Overlook crater to the ash-covered Halema‘uma‘u parking lot, several hundred yards away.
For now, the broader concern for this part of the island is shifting winds moving airborne ash and smoke from burning vegetation, road surfaces, and structures. It’s worth noting that the USGS has measured significant sulfur dioxide gas emissions near active fissures, along with lesser amounts of hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell) and where lava enters ocean water, hydrogen chloride gas. Sulfur dioxide—which smells like fireworks or a burning match—is colorless and highly toxic and converts in the atmosphere to sulfuric acid—acid rain.
What does all this mean for travelers?
The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is quick to note that Kīlauea’s ash emissions and lava flows, while significant, have affected only about 10 square miles in a remote corner of the Big Island and caused the indefinite closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hotels and attractions in other parts of the island are operating normally, and both the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole and Hilo International Airport have seen no service disruptions from the Kīlauea activity.
“No flights into airports anywhere in Hawaii are being impacted by Kīlauea volcano and the area where the lava is coming to the surface is very far from resort areas throughout the Hawaiian Islands where visitor accommodations are located,” said HTA president George D. Szigeti in a statement. The Big Island’s popular west-side resort areas in Kona and the Kohala Coast are more than 100 miles from Kīlauea.
“Travelers can enjoy their vacation experience in the Hawaiian Islands to the fullest,” adds Szigeti, “with the only word of caution being that they stay out of areas closed to the public for their own safety.”
For the latest on the Kīlauea eruption—and updates on Mauna Loa, Hualālai, Haleakalā, and Mauna Kea—sign up for the free USGS Volcano Notification Service, which delivers automatic notices via email or text message.
Next: Tips for Surviving a Close Encounter With Red-Hot Lava in Hawaii