The hazy skies caused by volcanic emissions from Kilauea may bring some spectacular, fiery sunsets, but those emissions — dubbed “vog” or volcanic smog in Hawaii — can also trigger a number of health problems. Last week, multiple agencies launched an online dashboard to help local residents prepare for those “voggy” days.

The website includes real-time air quality reports, wind and vog forecasts as well as many resources like scientific and health information, advice on using air purifiers and water catchment systems, and a guide designed specifically for island visitors.

“Becoming familiar with tools that can help you minimize your exposure to vog is one way to adapt to living harmoniously with Kilauea,” said Tamar Elias, a gas geochemist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

A USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geochemist measuring gases released from Kilauea with a spectrometer.
A USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geochemist measuring gases released from Kilauea with a spectrometer. Janet Babb/USGS/HVO

Elias and fellow observatory scientist Jeff Sutton worked on building the dashboard as part of a multi-agency collaboration that included Claire Horwell, a UK-based researcher at Durham University, along with officials from the Hawaii Department of Health and Hawaii County Civil Defense.

For Elias, dealing with vog is both a professional and personal passion.

“I have monitored air quality on Kilauea since the late 1980s and fielded vog questions from the public for over two decades,” she said. “I am also a 30-year volcano resident and so have had my share of vog-filled days, along with my neighbors, when the trade winds die.”

Vog Is Not Your Friend

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has been measuring sulfur dioxide emissions at Kilauea since the 1970s, well before the current eruption began in 1983, in part because of the hazards those emissions can pose to residents on the island of Hawaii.

People who have pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma are most at risk of experiencing effects that include eye, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue or dizziness. The symptoms also pose a danger to those with cardiovascular disease and infants, children and pregnant women are more susceptible.

When those emissions are especially heavy, even healthy people may also suffer. Elias noted that vog can impact plants and therefore island agriculture and even infrastructure like water systems.

Is there anything to love about vog?

“I’m not too sure about ‘loving vog,’” she replied.

“Acid soil is favorable for growing coffee and the acidic soil in Hawaii can be attributed to volcanic influence, including vog,” Elias said. “So coffee enthusiasts might appreciate that aspect.”

She added that the tiny particles in vog do reflect solar radiation and therefore vog helps cool the earth’s surface. But apart from that, vog has few upsides.

The Symptoms Of Vog

The website — along with a booklet of frequently asked questions, a brochure and poster about protecting yourself during vog episodes — came together following a 2015 study by Horwell, which looked at how local communities perceive and deal with vog as well as how they seek and receive information.

“Feedback from the community highlighted the difficulty many people were having in locating vog resources and the concept of creating a vog dashboard was born,” Elias said. “Our group is familiar with the various monitoring networks and vog resources associated with Kilauea and so were in a good position to help consolidate this information.”

Interestingly, Elias said, East Hawaii residents will sometimes report vog symptoms even when the trade winds are blowing Kilauea’s emissions to the southwest, as they often do during the spring and summer, keeping people clear upwind of the vog.

“It is likely that there are other environmental factors that are causing some people symptoms that are similar to vog symptoms,” she said. “If people are having symptoms that are due to something else in the environment, it is good to try to identify what that something else is, since they might be able to address the problem more appropriately.”

“If you are sensitive to mold, mildew, pollen, etc., there may be things to do that would specifically help with those challenges,” she added.

We Are Not Alone

Hawaii is not the only place where humans are learning to live with the gas-rich eruptions from a volcano. Elias pointed to the 2000 eruption of Mount Oyama on Miyakejima Island in Japan, where 80,000 tons of sulfur dioxide was released each day — compared to the 10,000 daily tons of gas that Kilauea generates at its peak.

Jeff Sutton and Tamar Elias, both of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, set up a spectrometer, an instrument that detects gas compositions on the basis of absorbed infrared light.
Jeff Sutton and Tamar Elias, both of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, set up a spectrometer, an instrument that detects gas compositions on the basis of absorbed infrared light. L. Lee/USGS

“The small island was evacuated for several years due to the gas hazards,” Elias said. “And a number of safety precautions were enacted when the residents moved back.”

Those precautions included increased health screenings and air quality monitoring and an environmental alarm system. There was also a health study that found that Miyakejima residents reported increased respiratory symptoms when sulfur dioxide emissions increased — just like in Hawaii.

“Hawaii has been living with ongoing volcanic eruption and persistent degassing for decades and has several systems in place that are helpful for communities living with volcanic pollution,” she said.

The state Department of Health works with the National Park Service to post sulphur dioxide advisories online, for example, while University of Hawaii Manoa maintains the Vog Measurement and Prediction system. Elias pointed to a newly published health study that looked at lung and respiratory health and asthma prevalence among school-age children on the island of Hawaii.

Beyond The Dashboard

The Hawaii Interagency Vog Information Dashboard is hosted by the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network, a clearinghouse that Horwell set up for information on the health impacts of volcanic eruptions. Elias encouraged Hawaii residents to visit the site, and to share feedback and suggestions through the “Vog Talk” group on Facebook.

“We also are aware that online information is not everyone’s cup of tea,” Elias said, noting that a booklet, brochure and poster are being printed to be distributed the old fashioned way.

She said that “a mobile app would be great” and it’s something that the interagency group has discussed, but it would require “creativity in using our resources.” For now, the dashboard itself is designed to look good on mobile devices.

In the meantime, her colleagues at the USGS are ramping up for next week’s World Conservation Congress, which is bringing more than 6,000 people from 170 countries to Hawaii to discuss environmental conservation, sustainability and volcanic emissions.

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