The Wrath of Vog


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Photo: David Croxford

It comes on the Kona winds—the dreaded yellow-brown haze of vog that makes eyes burn and lungs protest. On the Big Island, of course, it has done far more damage. How bad could it get? And what do we really know about vog and its effects?

Three-thousand, eight-hundred people lived on Miyakejima, a small island off Tokyo, until one day in September 2000, when the Japanese government ordered the island evacuated because of extreme volcanic activity. As directed, people delivered their pets to the port by 9:30 a.m., packed some belongings and a lunch and then boarded a city bus for the ship.

It was more than four years before they were allowed to return home.

The Island’s volcano had started erupting three months earlier. A month before the evacuations, the volcano had started emitting toxic sulfur dioxide (SO2)—the stuff of vog, and, in the case of Miyakejima, of corroded metal roofs, collapsed homes and extensive damage to forests, wild birds, sea life and farms. By November, the volcano was giving off 70,000 tonnes of SO2 per day. (A tonne is a metric unit equal to 1,000 kilograms, 2,304.6 pounds or 1.1 English tons.)

Even after residents were cleared to return home four-and-a-half years later, it was only under controlled circumstances: Residents who chose to return needed a medical clearance, a “safe room” in their house and had to carry a gas mask at all times.

Now that’s some serious vog.

Our Kilauea Volcano is currently tormenting the Big Island—and sometimes the other Hawaiian Islands—with what most residents consider really bad vog, but you might be surprised to read that it’s nothing compared to Miyakejima. Kilauea has been emitting 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes per day of SO2 from its two active vents since late 2008. At its peak last summer, it was giving off about 7,000 to 8,000 tonnes per day—only a tenth of what Miyakejima was doing at its worst.

Even so, Kilauea’s vog is driving just about everybody crazy, and has real health, environmental and economic impacts. Could it get worse? Could Kīlauea go Miyakejima on us? Could it get so bad that our government would force a mandatory evacuation?

Experts say the worst case scenario is possible, but unlikely. Short of that, vog is corroding our quality of life in some measurable ways. Here is a tally of what’s been happening and how people are coping with it.

Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder

Where Vog is Born

Kilauea Volcano is the only Big Island volcano currently active. Its name means “spewing,” or “much spreading,” and probably refers to its lava flows. Its cinder-and-spatter cone, called Puu Oo, has been erupting almost continuously since 1983. Slowly and steadily, over the years it’s wiped out a subdivision, almost the entire historic village of Kalapana, 202 structures, a visitor's center, part of a highway, archaeological sites and more.

In March of last year, a vent exploded at Halemaumau Crater at Kīlauea’s summit, and there were more explosions there through October. These explosions produced sulfur dioxide gas emissions and ash reported as far away as Pahala (19 miles) and Ocean View (nearly 40 miles to the southwest).

Normally the trade winds, which blow from the northeast, send much of the SO2 from Puu Oo out to sea. The SO2 coming from Halemaumau, though, often lingers over downwind Kau communities, from Pahala to Ocean View. Both plumes eventually reach the west side of the island in a double-whammy that covers the Kona coast with a dense and almost constant haze of vog.
It’s when the usual trade winds die down and winds blow from the south, or are variable, that vog covers East Hawaii and also impacts the other Hawaiian islands.

From the Hawaii Volcano Observatory:

Vog (volcanic smog) is a visible haze comprised of gas and an aerosol of tiny particles and acidic droplets, created when sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other gases emitted from Kilauea Volcano chemically interact with sunlight and atmospheric oxygen, moisture and dust. Near Kilauea’s active vents, vog consists mostly of SO2 gas. Along the Kona coast on the west side of Hawaii Island and in other areas far from the volcano, vog is dominated by an aerosol of sulfuric acid and other sulfate compounds.

Margaret Barnaby, a Volcano-based artist who makes what she jokingly calls “vog-saturated” woodblock prints, closes up her house as soon as she notices bad air, she says, and “last summer we went out and bought gas masks. I know where mine is, sealed in a Ziploc bag so the filters stay clean, but I have yet to use it. We do drive places occasionally to get out of the stink. People seem more relaxed about it lately. I am, anyway.”

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