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Kilauea Volcano has been a relatively peaceful spectacle on Hawaii Island… allowing tourists and scientists to get close to the geological show with minimal danger.
But Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists, like Don Swanson, believe Kilauea may be giving everyone the wrong impression.
Swanson presented the evidence to a crowd at UH-Hilo in January during Volcano Awareness Month on Hawaii Island. He spoke at length of the deadly eruption of 1790, when searing hot ash and gas suddenly exploded out of the volcano, killing many.
The event battered the travelling Hawaiian warriors and families of Keoua, a rival of pre-king Kamehameha the First.
It is likely that the blast took 80 lives simultaneously, although it is possible that several hundred died. That death toll makes Kilauea the deadliest known Volcano in the United States.
Which begs the question: Could such a deadly eruption happen again?
Yes, says geologist Don Swanson, but the conditions have to be right.
A deadly hurricane force “surge” is largely driven by steam, and models suggest that the Kilauea summit caldera would have to deepen to the water table below.
Such an explosive event would likely spread some ash around the island, but the greatest danger would be to the subdivisions immediately surrounding the national park.
Particularly at risk of deadly surge are the Volcano Golf Course subdivision, Volcano Village, or even Mauna Loa Estates.
But how long would such a caldera deepening take before it would begin to trigger explosive eruptions? Would there be time to evacuate?
Swanson believes it would take days to weeks of collapsing for the lava to reach the water table, but once it did, it would be time to evacuate.
Yet, Swanson says there is no reason to think that any major explosive activity is on the near horizon. Such caldera collapses happen every few hundred to 1,000 years.