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May 14, 2009
Debra Lordan · Editor/General Manager

If you have a runny nose, watery eyes, a sore throat and a raspy voice, the good news is, it’s probably not the swine flu. The bad news is, it may be the SO2 flu. The vog, or volcanic smog, the purple haze you see during the day, also produces some mighty breathtaking sunsets. But it’s also responsible for causing some of Maui’s inhabitants to feel ill.

Intermittently for the last 26 years, we have been breathing sulfur dioxide exhaust fumes from Kilauea Volcano on Hawai‘i Island when Kona winds from the south become prevalent.

The vog from the Pu‘u ‘O ‘o vent is the worst it has been in years, American Lung Association officials tell us. And the poor air quality is exacerbating existing conditions of those who suffer from asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions. Health experts recommend we avoid vigorous outside activity, drink plenty of fluids, keep medications on hand and remain indoors. But for how long?

It is estimated that Kilauea began to form on the sea floor between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago and has been active to some degree ever since. But how long can any one eruption last?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the longest historical eruption of Kilauea prior to the current one lasted for nearly 20 years in the early 1800s. From 1969 to 1974, activity at Mauna Ulu dominated Kilauea’s landscape until the recent eruption at Pu‘u ‘O ‘o. Scientists have learned that a summit eruption near Nahuku (Thurston lava tube) may have lasted 50 to 60 years. The prehistoric record reveals that eruptions at Kilauea’s older and larger sibling, Mauna Loa, could have lasted more than a century. And radiocarbon dating suggests sustained activity from 1,000 to 1,500 years before the present.

Based on long-term monitoring, scientists know that the magma supply to Kilauea is fairly constant over the long term. If the eruption were to stop, the magma supply to the volcano would continue. Eventually the influx of magma into the volcano would create pressure and a new outbreak would occur somewhere else on the island.

Kilauea has the singular distinction of being the world’s most active volcano. So how long will the current eruption last? If we rely on the geologic record, it could continue for several more decades or even a century.

So, don’t hold your breath. Apparently, Hawai‘i’s volcano goddess has no plans to hold hers. Whenever tradewinds are weak, we will continue to inhale Pele’s acrid exhalations. So it might be best to find a way to live with her…

There are actions that can be taken to help prevent the adverse health effects of this ever-changing public health threat. We will share some of them in the next issue. In the meantime, the public is encouraged to call the state Department of Health, Clean Air Branch at (808) 586 4200. For air quality statistics, visit and select online air quality data. For FAQs, visit



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