What Tourists Should Know About Hawaii’s Erupting Kilauea Volcano

Kilauea Volcano
PAHOA, HI - MAY 4: In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, a column of robust, reddish-brown ash plume occurred after a magnitude 6.9 South Flank following the eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano on May 4, 2018 in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii. The governor of Hawaii has declared a local state of emergency near the Mount Kilauea volcano after it erupted following a 5.0-magnitude earthquake, forcing the evacuation of nearly 1,700 residents. (Photo by U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images) Handout/Handout/Getty Images

Kilauea, the volcano on the Island of Hawaii, or Big Island, has been low-key erupting since 1983. But last week it went big, spewing lava and turning at least one subdivision into a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

It happened slowly. Mounting pressure throughout April caused lava to press into new underground chambers. The lava lake at Kilauea’s summit dropped 50 feet in under 24 hours, and afterward, the floor of the the Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater tiled, lifted up, and broke. The ground rumbled with roughly 100 small earthquakes each day, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) issued a warning that lava may soon begin spewing from other places around the volcano.

UPDATE: After three months of eruption and damage from lava, the eruptions and flow of lava from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island have slowed down, said geologists at the Hawaiian Volcanic Observatory, according to NPR.

While things have slowed, the area is not completely in the clear just yet: “It could be weeks or months before we feel comfortable calling the eruption and the summit collapse over,” said Tina Neal, the scientist in charge of the observatory, in a press release. Find out more about the situation in Hawaii here

By Wednesday, small cracks appeared in the roads through Leilani Estates, a neighborhood that lies along what’s known as the East Rift Zone. Over the next couple of days, those cracks grew into fissures hundreds of feet long. Plumes of ash spewed from Kilauea, and a 6.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the area.

The damage is serious. So far, 35 structures—at least 26 of them homes—have been destroyed, and 1,000 to 1,500 people have been evacuated. And the situation worsened over the weekend.

As of this morning, the volcano seems to be calming down. “Many of the vents have actually stopped,” Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawai’i Visitors Bureau, told Men’s Journal. “But it changes every hour. This is an ongoing thing.”

Three years ago, the volcano almost took out a nearby business district, but the lava stopped just short of destruction. “For the people who live here, it’s not a matter of if, but when,” Birch says. “The volcano is in the backs of their minds every day.” So nobody’s particularly surprised about what’s happening right now—nobody except, perhaps, potential travelers.

For anybody planning a trip to Hawaii, and particularly the Big Island, here’s what you need to know.

The Danger Now
Despite the fact that 10 fissures may still spew lava and residents of Lanipuna Gardens and Leilani Estates are fully evacuated for fear of poisonous gas, few travelers will even notice the volcanic activity. For now, the most pressing issue is the high level of atmospheric sulfur dioxide, which can cause serious respiratory problems. But the Department of Health reports that levels seem safe for now. The danger, says Birch, is contained to an area of about 10 square miles.

That said, people around the volcano aren’t in the clear just yet. The USGS can’t say for sure when the volcano will calm down completely. On Sunday morning, the agency reported that over a 24-hour period, there had been 31 small earthquakes three miles beneath the volcano’s summit. “Our biggest fear is more earthquakes,” Birch says. They’re less predictable than slow-moving lava.

What Does the Eruption Mean for Hawaii Tourism?
If you’ve ever traveled to Hawaii, odds are you visited O’ahu, or possibly Maui, which together account for about two-thirds of Hawaii’s tourism, according to 2016 figures. And of the 1.7 million people who visit the Big Island in a year, about 80 percent stay on the western coast, hundreds of miles from the volcano. Travel in Hawaii peaks December through February, and April marks the start of the island’s low season.

Visitors who might be affected are those hoping to see lava. While Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open, a few key areas are still closed—namely the Kalapana Viewing Area, Lava Tree State Monument, and Mackenzie State Recreation Area.

For Those Planning to Travel to Hawaii…
In a statement released Friday, Hawaii governor David Ige stressed that the impact was relegated to a “remote region” at the foot of the Kīlauea volcano. “Everywhere else in the Hawaiian Islands is not affected,” he said. “Travelers can enjoy their vacation experience in the Hawaiian Islands to the fullest, with the only word of caution being that they stay out of areas closed to the public for their own safety.”

Flights into the Big Island are still running on schedule, and the nearest resort areas in Kona and the Kohala coast are more than 100 miles from the volcano.