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Hawaii Volcano Belches Methane, ‘Eerie’ Blue Flames


This photo was taken from video by the U.S. Geological Survey. It shows blue flames of methane gas erupting through cracks on Kahukai Street in the Leilani Estates neighborhood of Pahoa on the island of Hawaii, May 23, 2018.

Scientists in Hawaii have captured rare images of blue flames burning from cracks in the pavement as Kilauea volcano gushes fountains of lava in the background, offering a look at a new dimension in the volcano’s weeks-long eruption.

The volcano produces methane when hot lava buries and burns plants and trees. The gas flows through the ground and up through existing cracks.

“It’s very dramatic. It’s very eerie,” Jim Kauahikaua, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, told reporters. He said it was only the second time he’s ever seen blue flames during an eruption.

The methane can seep through cracks several feet away from the lava. It can also cause explosions when it’s ignited while trapped underground. These blasts can toss blocks several feet away, said Wendy Stovall, also a scientist at the Geological Survey.

Homeowner Victor Hoapili stands on his property as lava erupts from a fissure in the Leilani Estates near Pahoa, Hawaii, May 23, 2018.
Homeowner Victor Hoapili stands on his property as lava erupts from a fissure in the Leilani Estates near Pahoa, Hawaii, May 23, 2018.

Thousands evacuated

Hawaii County has ordered about 2,000 people to evacuate from Leilani Estates and surrounding neighborhoods since the eruption began May 3.

The volcano has opened more than 20 vents in the ground that have released lava, sulfur dioxide and steam. The lava has been pouring down the flank of the volcano and into the ocean miles away.

The eruption has destroyed 50 buildings, including about two dozen homes. One person was seriously injured after being hit by a flying piece of lava.

Heath Dalton, right, and Jim Carpenter take pictures as fissures spew lava in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii, May 22, 2018. Authorities were able to close off production wells at a geothermal plant threatened by a lava flow from Kilauea.
Heath Dalton, right, and Jim Carpenter take pictures as fissures spew lava in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii, May 22, 2018. Authorities were able to close off production wells at a geothermal plant threatened by a lava flow from Kilauea.

Geothermal plant

Stovall said lava spatter from one of the vents was forming a wall that was helping protect a nearby geothermal plant.

Lava from that vent was shooting further into the air and producing the highest lava wall of all the vents, which was blocking molten rock from flowing north toward the plant.

Officials shut down Puna Geothermal shortly after the eruption began.

On Tuesday, officials finished stabilizing wells that bring up hot liquid and steam to feed a turbine generator. A team from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and the company continued Wednesday to plug the wells to make sure the fluid inside doesn’t move from one part of the well to the other, said Janet Snyder, a spokeswoman for Hawaii County.

Earlier this month officials removed a flammable gas called pentane from the plant to reduce the chance of explosions.

Good news for tourism

Tourism officials cheered news that a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship that tours the Hawaiian Islands would resume stopping in Kailua-Kona next week. Businesses catering to tourists on the cruise have taken a hit since the company suspended Big Island port visits after the eruption began.

The company said it would resume calling on Hilo, a town on the eastern side of the island closer to the lava, when conditions allow.

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