Hawaii’s Mauna Loa erupts, spewing ash and debris nearby

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HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, began spewing ash and debris from its summit, prompting civil defense officials to warn residents Monday to prepare in case the eruption precedes it causes lava to flow into communities.

The eruption began late on Sunday evening summit caldera of the Big Island volcano after a series of closely spaced, fairly large earthquakes, Ken Hon, the scientist in charge at the Hawaiian Volcanos Observatory, said at an early morning news conference. Magma rose to the surface even though lava flows were within the summit area and posed no threat to nearby communities.

A time-lapse video of the nighttime eruption shows molten lava lighting up the caldera and moving over it like waves on the ocean.

Some photos have been provided to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory that suggest the southern end of the caldera has flooded, causing several kilometers (miles) of lava to pour out of the caldera, Hon said.

In some past eruptions, lava has overflowed the caldera but never got close to populated areas.

“Right now we’re looking at indications and trying to figure out if this will be an eruption that stays within Mauna Loa’s summit or moves into one of the rift zones to the southwest or to the northeast,” Hon said.

“We don’t want to try to guess the volcano,” Hon said. “We need to show it to us what it’s going to do and then we’ll inform people about what’s happening as soon as possible.”

There is currently no indication of any migration from the eruption to a fault zone, officials said. A rift zone is where the mountain splits apart and the rock is cracked and relatively weak – making it easier for magma to emerge.

The ground is shaking and swelling at Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world, indicating it could erupt. Scientists say they don’t expect it to happen any time soon, but officials on the Big Island of Hawaii are telling residents to be prepared in case it erupts soon. This map shows the lava flow danger zones for the island.

“Right now is not the time to get alarmed,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said.

There are no evacuation orders.

While it noted there is no evidence of lava entering a canyon, Hawaii County Civil Defense announced it has opened shelters in Kailua-Kona and Pahala as it has reports of people evacuating themselves along the South Kona coast.

Scientists will have to wait to see if this remains a summit-only eruption or a rift zone eruption. Mauna Loa’s average eruption typically doesn’t last long, lasting a few weeks, Hon said.

“Usually Mauna Loa eruptions start with heaviest volume first,” Hon said. “After a few days things start to calm down a bit.”

The USGS warned residents at risk from Mauna Loa lava flows to review their eruption preparations. Scientists were on high alert because of a recent spike in earthquakes at the volcano’s summit, which last erupted in 1984.

Parts of the Big Island were under an ash advisory from the National Weather Service in Honolulu, which said up to a quarter of an inch (0.6 centimeters) of ash could accumulate in some areas.

Mauna Loa is one of five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaii, the southernmost island of the Hawaiian archipelago.

Rising 4,169 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa is the much larger neighbor of Kilauea volcano, which erupted into a residential area in 2018, destroying 700 homes. Some slopes are much steeper than Kilauea’s – so when it erupts, lava can flow much faster.

During an eruption in 1950, lava from the mountain traveled 15 miles to the ocean in less than three hours.

Tourism is the economic engine for Hawaii, but Roth predicted few problems for vacationers during the eruption.

“If it gets into one of the rift zones, it will affect a very small part of the island,” he said. “It will be spectacular where it is, but the chances of it actually disrupting the visitor industry are very, very slim.”

For some, the eruption could shorten travel time even with more vog, or volcanic smog caused by higher sulfur dioxide emissions.

“But the great thing is that you no longer have to drive from Kona to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see an eruption,” Roth said. “You can just look out your window at night and you’ll be able to see Mauna Loa erupt.”

Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.

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