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Massive ash plume at Kilauea's Halemaumau Crater was not 'the big one,' scientists say

PUNA (KHON2) - Over the past few days, most of the focus and volcanic activity on Hawaii island have centered around the lower East Rift Zone, where fissures continue to break out.

But on Tuesday, much of the attention shifted up to the summit of the volcano, where one of the largest ash explosions to date occurred, creating a plume that exceeded 12,000 feet above sea level at its peak.

It was large enough to prompt warnings for not only residents but aviators.

For Volcano village resident Susan Cabral and her husband, Randy, the morning started in dramatic fashion. Their home is located just three miles from the crater, and they watched in amazement as Mother Nature put on quite the display.

"It's unbelievable. It's spectacular, and it's frightening at the same time. We don't know where we're going to go, what we're going to do. It depends on which way the wind blows," Cabral said. "It's Madam Pele's country, and we're her guests."

According to scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, this was all part of the ongoing activity at Halemaumau, and the potential for a powerful explosion caused by receding lava interacting with cooler underground water still exists.

"It intensified today, but it wasn't the big one, so to speak," said Michelle Coombs, Alaska Volcano Observatory scientist-in-charge. "Does that mean that we won't see a much bigger, more explosive event? No, not necessarily. It could plug up, and we could yet in the future have the so-called 'big one.' Today was more of a gradual ramp-up, and it was continuous enough that we felt it was significant to put out a public warning."

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said northeast winds would continue to carry ash downstream across the Kau District, affecting the Punaluu, Wood Valley, and Naalehu communities into the early afternoon.

A half-hour or so down Highway 11 in the town of Pahala, residents we spoke with tell us the ash has been raining down all morning.

Pahala resident Deborah Funai says there's been a major change in air quality over the past 24 hours, with the majority of ash coming down Tuesday.

"(It affected) air quality, definitely. A lot more ash, breathing-wise more than anything else," Funai said.

Funai says she's seen many ashfalls over the years, but living downwind of the volcano now is much different.

"I have anxiety about it, definitely. Born and raised here, so it's definitely a lot more scary," she said. "You see the plumes coming, you think ash is going to be covered all over the place, so trying to get things covered as much as possible, we're prepared much as possible with masks and things like that."

Back up in Volcano, the winds are blowing in Cabral's favor, for now.

But if the winds were to change, "we've already taken some precautions to detach our gutters from the downspouts to reduce the amount of ash getting into our water tanks," she said. "The animals, if we can just keep giving them fresh water. I don't know how it's going to affect the pasture. If we get a good rain, it's not so much of a concern, but if the ash gets on the grass they feed on, we don't have a barn big enough to shelter all of our animals."

Although Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed indefinitely, the view from outside the park was nothing short of spectacular. Visitors to the islands and locals alike stood mesmerized and watched in total awe.

"It's creation at its finest right now," said Hawaiian Beaches resident Ike Payne. "There's a lot of things going on, and a lot of things in Puna who are really devastated by everything, but my gosh, this is Mother Nature and she is working her magic right now."

While the ash can be an irritant, especially for those with breathing problems, it does not contain any harmful chemicals.

Experts say it's still best to avoid the ashfall if at all possible. Motorists are also advised to drive with caution.


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