How volcanoes affect the economy

Photos by Edward Kohut, all rights reserved, used by permission, 2009
Photos by Dr. Edward Kohut, all rights reserved, used by permission, 2009
Many times people think that volcanic eruptions affect the economy through the destruction inflicted upon the landscape during an eruption: lahars and pyroclastic flows destroying bridges and homes, ash ruining crops and water, lava flows overunning communities. However, in Hawai’i, a new effect of volcanism has been seen in the agriculture of the state. The volcanic fog – or “vog” as its called – has been causing major problems with farms on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Since the new activity at Halemaumau (see above) began last year, Kilaeua has been spewing much larger volumes (2-4 times more) of volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, water and carbon monoxide than in previous years. These gases form a brown fog that is caustic to most animals and plants. The sulfur dioxide, in particular, has caused many crops to fail thanks to the production of sulfuric acid with the sulfur dioxide interacts with water – think of it as a very concentrated version of “acid rain” that is seen in the eastern United States.
The solution to this would either be to build “vog-proof” air-filtering greenhouses or planting a limited set of plants that seem to withstand the effects of the vog. Alternately, one can hope that the gas emissions from Kilaeau will return to lower levels, allowing for the plants to survive. In any of these cases, the growers on the island face a large financial hardship in order to keep their businesses alive in the face of the volcano. This passive destruction of plants by Kilaeua shows how even when a volcano seems to be benign, it can inflict millions of dollars of damage on the local economy.

Lava keeps flowing at Kilauea

Although this news isn’t as threatening as the title of the article implies: HAWAII LAVA FLOW NEARS NATIONAL PARK, it is still some news as it could be the first lava flow to cross into the park in over a lava. The flow itself is headed towards what is called the “Waikupanaha ocean entry” on the southeast side of the island. The lava flow has about one mile to go before it reaches the Pacific Ocean, but it has travelled several hundred feet (maybe 100 meters) over the last 10 days according to Park Rangers and USGS geologists monitoring the flow’s progress.
Of course, compared to your average pyroclastic flow or lahar, traveling at tens to hundreds kilometers per hour, tracking this lava flow is a little bit like watching paint dry (except, of course, it is lava). It shows the whole different level of volcanic hazard presented by Hawaiian volcanism versus Plinian (explosive) volcanism, where the level of concern at the park can be summed up with “Our idea is not to control and prevent. Our idea is to educate.”

Kilauea’s new fire fountain

Kilauea USGS
Kilauea is busy keeping geologists and tourists alike wondering what the volcano will be doing next. The current report on the volcano tells of a new fire fountain at the Thanksgiving Eve Break-out “rootless cone”, about 6 miles from the ocean. The fire fountain started on Sunday night, issuing lava up to 40 feet in the air and the USGS has posted an amazing video of the fountaining on the HVO website. However, unlike the predicted behavior where magma at Kilauea starts near the summit and moves into the rifts, these lavas appear to be unrelated to the activity going on at the summit of Kilauea. This could mean that we have less of a grasp on the internal plumbing of this giants shield volcano than we previously thought … and it is always exciting when nature decides to prove us wrong! 
This heightened state of eruption at Kilauea during the past week has also doubled the levels of sulfur dioxide being emitted from the volcano, which, of course, leads to more of the dreaded vog. Most of it has blown out to sea, but as winds change, so might that.
Edited 7/8/08 to fix location of the eruption (thanks to Mariek Schmidt for the clarification).

Hawaiian Vog

Kilauea SO2
The latest eruption at Kilauea has increased the amount of vog on the big island of Hawai’i. Vog is more or less the same as the anthropogenic “smog” produced by car/industrial exhaust, but produced by volcanic gases (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide amongst others). It definitely doesn’t make for good air quality, especially with the current lack of strong tradewinds in Hawai’i right now.