Hawaii volcano explosions could fling 10-ton boulders into the air, spew ‘vog’

Steam-driven explosions at the summit of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii could pose new threats to residents on the island.


Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano continues to erupt, creating lava-oozing fissures and prompting new concerns about possible toxic gas, acid rain, and flying refrigerator-sized boulders.

The problem lies at the summit of Kilauea, where a lava lake has been draining quickly at a rate of about 6.5 feet per hour, dropping 970 feet below the surface over the past week.

“This is a huge change. This is three football fields going down,” Charles Mandeville, volcano hazards coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, said.

Scientists fear that, as lava and superheated rocks meet the water table below ground, steam could accumulate and cause an explosion that hurls massive rocks into the sky.

“If it goes up, it will come down,” Mandeville said. “You don’t want to be underneath anything that weighs 10 tons when it's coming out at 120 mph (193 kph).”

A lava flow moves on Makamae Street after the eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano. (Photo by U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images)

Those 10-ton projectiles could fly a half-mile from the shield volcano if an explosion occurs, while clouds of ash could blanket areas up to 20 miles away.

The threat has caused officials to close Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, and could soon ground planes at one of the island’s two major airports. Experts said an explosion wouldn’t be deadly as long as people steer clear of areas immediately near the volcano.

“We know the volcano is capable of doing this,” Mandeville said, referring in part to steam-driven explosions that occurred at Kilauea in 1924 after a lava lake drained at Halema'uma'u crater. “We know it is a distinct possibility.”

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park visitors watch as an ash plume rises from the Halemaumau crater within the Kilauea volcano summit caldera. (Image: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Other less-serious threats to residents in the area include volcanic smog– or “vog”–and acid rain. On Thursday night, Hawaii County officials sent a text message warning residents that changing wind patterns could bring more sulfur dioxide gas from the volcano into the air, which can cause respiratory problems and, in some cases, death.

“It’s just horrible. You can’t breathe in there,” Robynn Stagg, an evacuated resident who drove through the orange sulfur dioxide haze while trying to check on her home, told Reuters.

Increased levels of sulfur dioxide gas could give rise to acid rain, though experts say it won’t be dangerous.

“If you’re wearing clothing, there’s no risk,” University of Hawaii meteorologist and professor Steven Businger told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It’s not going to burn your skin…It might irritate your eyes if you look up and get raindrops in your eyes.”

Scientists can’t be certain when the eruptions at Kilauea will stop.

“We can’t really peer through the ground and see it exactly in all its details and intricacies,” Bill Chadwick, a volcanologist at NOAA, told NPR. “It could last days, weeks, years. All that's possible. It’s hard to say, unfortunately.

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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