A volcano in Hawaii has erupted from its summit, after lava and ash spewing from its fissures forced thousands to evacuate in recent weeks.
The eruption at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano shot ash 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) into the air, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). Authorities warned residents of Hawaii’s Big Island to shelter in place against the resulting plume.
The volcano – one of five on the island – has been active for two weeks, forcing about 2,000 people to evacuate the surrounding area. Lava leaking from the fissures has destroyed at least 26 homes and 10 other structures, according to the Associated Press.
Officials said they did not expect the eruption to be deadly as long as people stayed out of the national park where the volcano sits, which has been closed since 11 May.
The US Geological Survey issued a red alert on Tuesday, warning that a major eruption was imminent. Parks Service staff were evacuated from the area, leaving only a live camera feed to witness the explosion.
Authorities have warned of such an eruption since 9 May, when the lava lake at the volcano’s summit dropped, creating conditions for a major, steam-driven blast.
The volcano last erupted on 3 May. At least 17 fissures have opened up since then, issuing ash, lava, and “dense ballistic blocks” weighing up to several tons. The longest of the fissures is more than a mile wide, and has been shooting lava spatter more than 100 feet in the air, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.
The fissures are also emitting sulfur dioxide – a poisonous gas that officials say has reached dangerous levels in some areas.
“Severe conditions may exist such as choking and inability to breathe,” the Hawaii county civil defence agency said. “This is a serious situation that affects the entire exposed population.”
The Hawaii State Department of Health has warned the public to steer clear of any areas with fissures. Airlines and pilots have also been warned to avoid the area, as sulphur dioxide and volcanic ash can damage aeroplane engines.
One resident described the volcanic activity as “like a nuclear reaction”.
“I’ve actually seen rocks fly over the tree line and I can feel it in my body,” resident Richard Schott told the Associated Press.
Hawaii Governor David Ige has said the state is forming a joint task force to handle mass evacuations if lava from the volcano covers major roadways in the area.
Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the country. A major eruption in 1924 killed at least one person.