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Lava Flow in Hawaii Gains Speed, Triggers Methane Explosions

Hawaii Lava Flow Engulfs Graveyard as it Crawls Towards Pahoa 0:25

An active lava flow on Hawaii’s Big Island gained speed as it spread toward a residential neighborhood late Sunday, prompting authorities to warn that evacuations could begin within hours. Civil Defense personnel and emergency response teams were starting a door-to-door sweep of homes near the village of Pahoa, officials said, to inform residents of the progress of the molten rock. Others were warned to stay indoors to avoid smoke.

The lava - at a temperature of around 2,000 degrees - Fahrenheit oozed across a road Sunday and pushed through a mostly Buddhist cemetery on the edge the town in the region of Puna. The lava is moving at a rate of approximately 15 to 20 yards an hour, Hawaii County officials said in a 9:30 p.m. local time Sunday (3:30 a.m. Monday ET) update that said the flow was 600 yards from the main road in the town. “Residents in the immediate downslope area of the flow path have been advised to prepare for possible evacuation tonight,” the update said. “Due to the unpredictability and inconsistency in the flow rate of advancement, precautions will be taken to ensure the safety of all residents.” The Red Cross opened a shelter for displaced residents, Hawaii News Now reported.

Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983. The current flow began in June and has been moving toward Pahoa in fits and starts. Janet Babb, a geologist and spokeswoman for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said an “unnerving” number of methane explosions had been observed. Decomposing vegetation produces methane gas that can travel subsurface beyond the lava front in different directions, accumulating in pockets that can ignite, she told reporters in a Sunday conference call.

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- Alastair Jamieson