Senior Editor
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The Inertia

Hawaii’s Big Island is already facing some pretty big issues, what with the place basically cracking in two and everything. The guts of the earth are pouring out, torching everything in their path. With a volcanic eruption, of course, comes a host of other possibly fatal things. And in the last few days, Kilauea’s molten barf has produced yet another: laze.

A steam that’s made up of regular old water mixed with hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, laze occurs when lava hits the sea. It’s an objectively beautiful sight—massive plumes of white steam are released as the glowing red lava hits the cool water. But that laze can be deadly because along with the hydrochloric and sulfuric acid droplets, there are also super-fine glassy particles of volcanic rock, which, as you might imagine, are not particularly good for the lungs. “The lava is boiling the sea, but the sea is also cooling the lava,” said volcanologist Simon Carn at Michigan Technological University. “It becomes volcanic glass, and then it shatters and these little particles of glass get wafted up in this hot steam and acid plume.”

The lava erupting from two fissures in the Puna district hit the ocean on Sunday, prompting Hawaii’s Civil Defense Agency to issue warnings to anyone in the area. “Stay away from any ocean plume,” the agency wrote. “The plume travels with the wind and can change direction without warning.”

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The Big Island is made up of five different volcanoes: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. Kohala, the oldest, hasn’t erupted in something like 60,000 years, so researchers declared it extinct. Mauna Kea last blew its top nearly 4,000 years ago, so it’s dormant. Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea are all active, and Kilauea has been erupting since 1983. All that lava means that scientists have had plenty of time to study its effects, and they’re well aware of the hazards of laze. Luckily, its relatively easy to evade, but since everyone and the mother is currently trying to see the giant plumes of steam, officials are worried that someone’s going to get too close. “We know it’s a hazard to people who are right in the thick of it,” said volcanologist Michael Poland with the US Geological Survey, “so it’s important to stay clear of it.”

According to Poland, the only people who should be affected by the laze are emergency crews and geologists, but sightseers always seem to show up in places where they shouldn’t be. When the wind hits it, it dissipates relatively quickly. “It’s not going to hit you and your skin starts melting,” Poland explained. The only real danger is if someone gets caught right in a plume, which is pretty rare. In 2000, laze killed two people, but that’s about it. Still, though, on an island where hundreds have been evacuated, homes have been lost, and entire communities are gone, it’s just one more unwanted thing to worry about.

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