Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano was placed on “red alert” on May 16th and soon thereafter erupted, spewing lava and hazardous gases on Hawaii’s Big Island.  What will the short and long-term consequences be for island residents and the atmosphere, near and far, because of the volcanic action?

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano was placed on "red alert"  on May 16th and soon thereafter erupted spewing lava and hazardous gases on Hawaii's Big Island.  What will the short and long term consequences be for island residents  and the atmosphere, near and far?Below you will find answers to these and other questions from Sarah Lu, Ph.D., research associate at the Atmospheric Science Research Center (ASRC) and research faculty in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University at Albany.

Dr. Lu says volcanic smog contains sulfur dioxide gas (SO2). That’s in addition to fine particulate matter (PM, a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets) and other trace gases.  Both SO2 and PM are pollutants that the EPA regulates. Not to mention the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). SO2 can be harmful to human and animal health and plant life.

According to the National Parks Service:

Sulfur dioxide irritates the skin and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. High concentrations like those experienced in this latest eruption can cause inflammation and irritation of the respiratory system. The gas can also react with other chemicals in the air and change to small particles that may enter the lungs and cause health effects.  Those at particular risk include those with lung disease, children, older adults, and active individuals.

“Injected ash falls rapidly from the atmosphere, though most ash is removed within several days to weeks,” said Dr. Lu. “However, SO2 can cause global cooling, while carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) can promote global warming. One example was the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. The Pinatubo cloud was the largest sulfur dioxide cloud ever observed in the stratosphere since the satellite era (1979-present). Large aerosol disturbances from the Pinatubo eruption led to measurable cooling of the Earth’s surface. It lasted for 2-3 years after the eruption.”

Dr. Sarah Lu

Volcanic ash also has detrimental effects on aircraft engines. So the forecast of ash-loading is critical to those concerned with aviation safety. The University of Hawaii, in collaboration with the Atmospheric Research Lab, is monitoring ash levels to ensure air safety.

For more on VOG forecasting (air pollution that results when sulfur dioxide and other gases and particles emitted by an erupting volcano react with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunlight), click here.

“Once emitted in the atmosphere, volcanic smog is transported and distributed in the atmosphere and eventually dissipates (removed),” said Dr. Lu.   “In general, the larger particles fall closer to the source of the volcanic emission, and fine particles are carried long distances. The higher the volcano eruption plumes reach, the longer the volcanic plumes reside in the atmosphere.”

The evolution of volcanic ash in the atmosphere depends on volcanic activity and weather conditions, particularly wind. Volcanic smog can be measured either from ground-based observations or aircraft/satellite measurements. The scientific challenge for forecasting volcano plume dispersion is to correctly specify the emission intensity. And the injection height needed for dispersion numerical calculations. Ground-based lidar (radar using laser light), like that deployed by the NYS Mesonet, the state’s mesoscale weather network, has been used following previous eruptions to measure the vertical structure of volcanic plumes.

Source: University at Albany |

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