Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has erupted from its summit, shooting a dusty plume of ash 9100m into the sky.
Mike Poland, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey (USGS), confirmed the explosion took place on Friday (Thursday at 4.15am local time).
The powerful explosions began with “ballistic blocks” the size of microwave ovens shooting from the volcano, after a new zone of Mount Kilauea began erupting almost two weeks ago.
Lava flows have already destroyed at least 26 houses and 10 other structures and forced up to 2000 people to leave their homes.
Residents of the Big Island were warned to urgently seek shelter as the plume engulfed a wide area and reports more explosions were imminent, the USGS warned.
Explosions in Kilauea’s crater sparked an aviation red alert due to risks the ash plume could blow into aircraft routes and damage jet engines.
These steam-driven blasts could send hurling 10-12 ton boulders up to 800m and scatter pebble-sized rocks over 20km, the USGS said.
This type of eruption has the potential to carpet the Big Island in much thicker ash than current dustings and possibly spread the powder and volcanic smog across the Hawaiian islands and farther afield if it enters the stratosphere.
“This morning dense ballistic blocks up to 60cm across were found in the parking lot a few hundred metres from Halemaumau (Kilauea’s crater),” the USGS said in a statement.
“These reflect the most energetic explosions yet observed and could reflect the onset of steam-driven explosive activity.”
A 4.2 magnitude earthquake at the volcano prompted authorities to issue an alert reassuring rattled Big Island residents that there was no risk of a tsunami from the volcanic activity.
The crater sits within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has been closed since May 11.
Officials have said they did not expect the explosion to be deadly as long as people remained out of the park.
Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. An eruption in 1924 killed one person and sent rocks, ash and dust into the air for 17 days.
Boulders the size of refrigerators
Scientists warned on May 9 that a drop in the lava lake at the summit could create conditions for an explosion that could fling ash and boulders the size of refrigerators into the air.
Scientists predicted it would mostly release trapped steam from flash-heated groundwater released as though it was a kitchen pressure cooker.
Nearby communities may be showered by pea-size fragments or dusted with nontoxic ash, they said.
Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983.
It’s one of five volcanoes that comprise the Big Island of Hawaii, and the only one currently erupting.