‘Explosive Eruption’ At Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea Volcano Sends Ash 30,000 Ft in the Air
Screen shot of the ash plume at the Kīlauea Volcano summit, taken from a Mauna Loa webcam. (Photo: USGS)

After a series of smaller eruptions, Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea volcano saw what geologists call an ‘explosive eruption’ which sent ash and debris flying 30,000 feet up in the sky. That is just below cruising altitude for most jetliners.

The volcano is located on Hawaii's Big Island, and the resulting plume is expected to cover the surrounding area, according to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) says the eruption took place at 04:15 local time (14:15 GMT). A red aviation code had already been issued - warning pilots to avoid the potentially damaging ash cloud. "At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent," the USGS said. "Ballistic projectiles may be produced should steam-driven explosions occur. Impacts will be limited to an area around Halemaumau."

Recent explosions have been steam-driven, occurring when water beneath the ground or on the surface is heated by magma, lava, hot rocks or new volcanic deposits, the USGS says. While the ash being launched into the sky is not poisonous, Hawaii County officials have warned residents about toxic sulfur dioxide seeping out of 21 fissures caused by the volcano.

"Severe conditions may exist such as choking and inability to breathe," the county's Civil Defense Agency said Wednesday. "This is a serious situation that affects the entire exposed population."

Kilauea’s eruption was also seen from the international space station. Two astronauts aboard the International Space Station shared photos of their view of the massive smoke plume on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The astronauts, who launched into space in March on Expedition 55/56, spotted signs of the volcanic eruption over the weekend. The astronauts were carried to the ISS by a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that had a radio callsign “Hawaii.” Ricky Arnold, another NASA astronaut aboard the ISS, tweeted two images of the plume of smoke as the space station “flew over our namesake.”

Kilauea is one of five active volcanoes on the island of Hawaii. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and has been erupting continuously, though not explosively, for more than 30 years. Its last explosive eruption took place in 1924.