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Rudi Kiefer: Living near active volcanoes is a gamble
Rudi Kiefer
The name Kilauea sounds a bit like “killer.” Fortunately, no deaths have been reported in the current eruption of the Hawaiian volcano.

However, the Leilani Estates community, located on the eastern side of the Big Island and just east of the main crater, has been suffering severely. Living just 4 miles from the center of an active volcano is a gamble to begin with. What buried homes in 1,500-degree lava, though, was a massive fissure, or crack in the Earth’s surface, that opened up May 3. The fissure runs diagonally through the gridwork of streets and suburban-type lots. By May 12, 26 houses were gone.

Most eruptions of Hawaiian volcanoes — Kilauea, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and many others — are of the flowing type. Lava emerges from a pit crater or a fissure. It’s hot enough to set houses on fire before over-running them completely. But the flows tend to move slowly, just “faster than a turtle,” as one observer commented. Because there’s so much lava involved, the Hawaiian volcanoes are flatter than their steep cone-shaped cousins on the continent. In the 2016 flow eruption of Kilauea, the lava traveled 6 miles.

Due to the ongoing destruction, Hawaii has been declared a disaster zone. But this isn’t one of the ultra-violent, explosive events that we’ve seen at places like Mount St. Helens (Washington), or Mount Pinatubo (Philippines). Residents near Kilauea are well aware that they may lose their homes at any time.

It’s different with continental volcanoes. Napoli (aka, Naples), Italy, has a population of 1 million. It’s located exactly where Pompeii once stood. That ancient town was destroyed by an explosive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. An estimated 2,000 people died in the hot blast, accompanied by a shower of glowing lava fragments and clouds of asphyxiating volcanic ash.

Napoli’s main government buildings, located downtown on the Via Medina, are as close as 9Ú miles from the enormous crater. Suburbs like the Villa neighborhood stretch up the slopes to just 2.5 miles from the rim.


It’s unknown and unpredictable when Vesuvius will erupt again. While the lava flows in Hawaii are regarded by some as a tourist attraction, and a financial loss by the affected homeowners, the city of Naples, Italy, stands to suffer a much more massive disaster, along with great loss of human life.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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