Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has erupted anew before dawn, shooting a steely grey plume of ash from its summit about 9,100 metres into the sky that began raining down on a nearby town.
“This has relieved pressure temporarily,” US Geological Survey geologist Michelle Coombs told a news conference in Hilo.
“We may have additional larger, powerful events.”
The explosion happened about 4:00am (local time) after two weeks of volcanic activity that sent lava flows into neighbourhoods and destroyed dozens of homes.
Scientists said the eruption was the most powerful in recent days, though it probably lasted only a few minutes.
The observatory’s webcam shows ash raining down after Kilauea’s explosive eruption. (Supplied: USGS)
Toby Hazel, who lives in Pahoa, near the mountain, said she heard “a lot of booming sounds”. Those came after days of earthquakes.
“It’s just time to go — it really, really is,” she said, preparing to leave town.
“I feel so sorry for the people who don’t go, because they don’t have the money, or don’t want to go to a shelter and leave their houses.”
People earlier watched ash erupting from the Halemaumau crater near the community of Volcano. (Reuters: Terray Sylvester)
Some people in the community closest to the volcano slept through the blast, said Kanani Aton, a spokeswoman for Hawaii County Civil Defence, who spoke to relatives and friends in the town called Volcano.
At least one person who was awake heard nothing. Epic Lava tour operator John Tarson is an early riser and said he only learned about the eruption because he received an alert on his phone.
Scientists said the eruption was the most powerful in recent days, though it probably lasted only a few minutes. (Reuters: Terray Sylvester)
Mr Tarson said the ash plume looked different than others he has witnessed because of its sheer height.
A video he shared on Facebook showed a towering column of ash reaching into a hazy sky.
“What I noticed is the plume was just rising straight into the air, and it was not tipping in any direction,” he said.
“We’ve been expecting this, and a lot of people are going to see it and get excited and scared.”
Cracks caused by the underlying intrusion of magma expanded significantly during the past 24 hours, some with horizontal and vertical offsets, the US Geological Society said.
Cracks caused by the underlying intrusion of magma were still expanding. (AP/US Geological Survey)
Residents as far away as Hilo, about 48 kilometres from Kilauea, were noticing the volcano’s effects.
Pua’ena Ahn, who lives in Hilo, complained about having laboured breathing, itchy, watery eyes and some skin irritation from airborne ash.
A National Weather Service ash advisory was in effect until noon. Several schools closed because of the risk of elevated levels of sulphur dioxide, a volcanic gas.
The crater sits within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has been closed since May 11 as a safety precaution over risks of a violent eruption.
Scientists warned on May 9 that a drop in the lava lake at the summit might create conditions for an explosion that could fling ash and fridge-sized boulders into the air.
Geologists predicted such a blast would mostly release trapped steam from flash-heated groundwater. If it happens, communities a kilometre or two away could be showered by pea-size fragments or dusted with ash.
Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, has been erupting continuously since 1983. It’s among the five volcanoes that form Hawaii’s Big Island, and the only one that’s actively erupting.
An eruption in 1924 killed one person and sent rocks, ash and dust into the air for 17 days.
Nobody lives in the immediate area of Kilauea’s summit crater, which is a national park. (US Geological Survey via AP)
Robert Hughes owns the Aloha Junction Bed and Breakfast near the crater. He said he did not hear anything and has yet to spot ash.
His business has been hit hard by fears of the volcano, a major attraction for visitors. He has lost hundreds of reservations and had just three guests instead of the 12 to 14 he has typically served.
One was a news reporter, and the other two were visiting from Italy.
“In the old days, people used to love to come see the volcano. They’d even take their little postcards, burn one corner in the lava flow, mail them off, stuff like that,” he said.
“Now they’re acting like it’s all super-dangerous and everything, but it just kind of oozes out.”