Days, Weeks, Years? Scientists Say Hawaii Volcano Eruption Has No End In Sight

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The eruption at Hawaii's Kilauea volcano is continuing. The lava has now destroyed more than two dozen homes. Scientists have been tracking this event since it started, and NPR's Merrit Kennedy has more on what they've learned.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: For more than 30 years, the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island has been erupting. Lava levels rose in recent weeks. Then, last week, they plummeted. Wendy Stovall is with the U.S. Geological Survey.

WENDY STOVALL: So the whole bottom of the crater floor dropped out, and the magma completely drained away from that system.

KENNEDY: Stovall is one of the researchers from around the country tracking this volcano. Scientists don't know what started this latest event, but there are two possibilities.

STOVALL: Either there's an increase in magma supply or something blocked the system. Something blocked the pathway out of the system.

KENNEDY: In other words, either more molten rock suddenly shot up from deep inside the earth or there was a clog. Whatever the cause, the magma turned away from the crater, heading east underground, flowing into spaces between the rock. Stovall says scientists tracked the flow as it set off earthquakes and deformed the ground.

STOVALL: Honestly, it was pretty frightening to see where the magma was going.

KENNEDY: That's because it was headed toward a neighborhood, Leilani Estates, a lush residential area of more than 1,700 people. Video on social media shows lava gushing out, destroying homes and causing havoc.

ERIK KLEMETTI: It's sort of like a leaky pipe or a burst pipe, where the magma is moving down the conduit system. And it just reaches a point where the pressure builds enough that you start cracking the surface above.

KENNEDY: That's Denison University volcanologist Erik Klemetti. There are now at least 12 of these burst points, or fissures, in the ground in and around Leilani Estates. Scientists are tracking earthquakes and the composition of gas coming out of the cracks in the ground, which hints at whether the eruption will intensify. But what will happen longer term is much more difficult to predict says Bill Chadwick, a volcanologist at NOAA.

BILL CHADWICK: We can't really peer through the ground and see it exactly in all its details and intricacies.

KENNEDY: And without those details, they can't predict when this eruption will end.

CHADWICK: Yeah. It could last days, weeks, years. All that's possible (laughter). It's hard to say, unfortunately.

KENNEDY: That makes it extremely difficult for the residents of Leilani Estates to know what their future holds, which worries Klemetti.

KLEMETTI: When a house today might look like it's perfectly safe, it might get taken out by a lava flow five years from now if the eruption keeps on going.

KENNEDY: Unlike a hurricane or an earthquake, this disaster has no clear end in sight. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.

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