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Water Found in Hawaiian Volcano Could Lead to Eruptions

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Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.


Last year, the volcano spewed lava and destroyed homes on the archipelago's Big Island. Then in the spring, a lava lake vanished from sight within the Halema'uma'u summit crater. Now, the lave is being replaced by a growing body of water that is likely rising from below, as the New York Times reported.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the pond was growing in a blog post. "We can now confirm the presence of water at the bottom of Halema'uma'u. [USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory] observers on the helicopter overflight saw reflections from the green pond — the 'smoking gun' for water," the blog post said. "The pond has clearly enlarged since the earliest photos on July 25."

"The question is what does this mean in the evolution of the volcano?" USGS scientist emeritus Don Swanson said to the AP. He added that Halemaumau has never had water since written observations began in 1823, so the pond is unusual. However, oral tradition suggests there was water there around 1500 and then again around 1650, according to the New York Times.

While scientists do not know what will happen next, they do know that when when lava interacts with water it can cause explosive eruptions.

"I am a bit surprised that water could accumulate to make a lake at Kilauea because the rocks are so permeable," Michael Manga, professor of Earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email to CNN. "I would have guessed that the lake water would drain."

Since the lave lake drained, the rocks are cool enough to allow water to exist as a liquid, but they are scorching hot. The water, acidified by escaping magmatic gas, is about 158 degrees Fahrenheit. It is flanked by several fumaroles, vents unleashing volcanic gas at temperatures as high as 392 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the New York Times.

Scientists are perplexed by the presence of water and can envision several different ways the water may affect Kilauea.

"Until we have a better understanding of where the water is coming from, it's difficult to forecast what could happen next," said Janet Babb, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, in an email to CNN.

She said it was likely that lava would return. In one scenario, if the lava rises through the water, the two could react violently and create explosions, especially if the water column is deep, which is not yet known.

"Water plus heat (from magma/lava) makes steam, and steam can expand tremendously, which can break up lava into small bits and hurl them into the air," Babb wrote to CNN. "However, there is no evidence that an explosion, under the current conditions, would increase risk to public safety (i.e., any explosion would be small)."

Swanson agreed with her assessment and noted that any imminent blasts will be confined to the crater itself. "There is a greater potential for explosions than we'd realized before," he said to the New York Times, "but this is not going to affect public safety."

And yet, Kilauea is a highly active volcano that alternates between explosive and effusive (slower, steady lava flows) periods. The presence of water means the next explosive period could result in a massive collapse of the crater floor, as CNN reported.

"Kīlauea remains an active volcano, and it will erupt again," the Geological Survey wrote in a report July 31. "Although we expect clear signs prior to the next eruption, the time frame of warning may be short."


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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "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."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.