PAHOA, Hawaii — Kīlauea belched a towering column of smoke and ash above the Big Island on Tuesday as small earthquakes shook the area — a show of force from the volcano that's not been seen in 12 days.
But the eruption Tuesday was not as serious as some have feared and so far has fallen short of a catastrophic massive steam emission. Strong trade winds are blowing the ash away from the island’s major population centers and scientists say there’s little danger to the public from the latest eruption.
Authorities say the ash is powdered rock and poses no significant health threat as of 1 p.m. local time. Poisonous gases that do pose a threat are also being blown away from the island’s biggest city, Hilo. The eruption began early Tuesday morning and continued through the day.
“We are observing more or less continuous emissions of ash,” Steve Brantley of the federal Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said.
Authorities have been warning of an eruption like this for days as lava has been oozing out of the volcano and destroying homes in the nearby Pahoa area. Scientists say the ash plume is likely caused by debris falling into the largely empty Halemaumau Crater and exploding. The plume is rising more than two miles above the ground, according to pilots and radar, authorities said.
"At any time, activity may become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent," the HVO said in a statement.
Kīlauea, not considered an explosive volcano like Mount St. Helens or Pompeii, has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983 but not always at the level of recent weeks. A significant eruptive episode that began on May 3 sent lava pouring through a rural neighborhood about 35 miles from Hilo. Nearly 2,000 people who live in the area have been barred from their homes for more than a week, and at least 36 structures have been destroyed by the lava flows, including 26 homes.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which contains Kilauea, remains closed to the public. Dozens of tourists are lining up along roads flanking the park to snap photos of the towering column.
Officials say the eruption is similar to a 1924 eruption that sent ash as high as 20,000 feet above sea level and blasted the area around it with rocks. To date, most of the rocks thrown by this eruption have been smaller than golf balls, authorities said.
Scientists say they have no predictions for when the eruption may cease.