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Kilauea Volcano Lava Likely Causing Acid Rain

Newsweek logo Newsweek 7/11/2018 Jenni Fink

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As Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano continues to erupt, the heat from the lava is causing rainfall to be contaminated with sulfur dioxide, also known as acid rain.

Sulfur dioxide is released into the air through volcanic eruptions and lava and can cause acid rain downwind of a volcano, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Within a 24-hour period that ended Monday morning, the lower East Rift Zone received 9.22 inches of rain, likely containing sulfur dioxide, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Derek Wroe, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service, told Newsweek that there’s been localized heavy rainfall a couple of times over the past week, with most of it being confined directly over fissure 8 and several miles downwind. Fissure 8 is the opening serving as the primary source of lava in the channel that was flowing into the ocean at Kapoho Beach.

Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the rain is likely acidic although measurements of the sulfur dioxide in the rainfall haven’t been taken.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense said in a message on Monday that the National Weather Service was forecasting light trade wind conditions through the night and some areas would experience elevated SO2 levels. 

"You are reminded to take actions by sheltering in place or leaving affected areas,” the message continued. 

National Weather Service meteorologist John Bravender explained to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the heat from the lava has made the air mass “really unstable” and while it hasn't been constant since the eruption, it's “cropping up part of the time.”

While there’s been an ongoing volcanic activity for decades around the area, Wroe said that it’s traditionally been confined to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and it’s new to be dealing with “this much activity to a population center.”

He explained that many people use catchment systems for water, which poses the possibility of acid rain getting into drinking water. Wroe added that the Hawaii State Department of Health, along with other agencies, is expanding their monitoring network to measure sulfur dioxide in the area.

High concentrations of sulfur dioxide can also produce volcanic smog and cause long-term health problems, according to the USGS. Volcanic smog is known to irritate skin and the tissues and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat.

On Monday, a collapse with energy equivalent to a magnitude-5.3 earthquake also occurred underneath Kilauea caldera, according to a USGS status report. The report added that more earthquakes were expected until the next collapse/explosion on Tuesday.

Kilauea began erupting on May 3 and has destroyed at least 657 homes, including Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim’s. The Hawaii County Civil Defense announced on Tuesday that the residential areas of Kapoho Beach Lots and Four Corners remain closed. People were urged to remain alert and be prepared to evacuate, although there “is no immediate threat.” 


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