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kiluaea volcano eruption hawaii
Freddy Thuerig/

During the Volcano Eruption, Is Hawaii Safe?

I recently spent a week in Hawaii, splitting my time between Honolulu’s bustling Waikiki area and the lush shores of Kauai. My trip was completely unaffected by the Hawaii volcano eruption that’s been going on since early May, despite the scary pictures I’d seen of spewing ash and fiery lava. My flights were on time, the air was fresh and clean, and I was able to enjoy the pristine landscapes and local hospitality for which Hawaii is famous.

That said, my visit did not include the Big Island, where the ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea volcano have damaged hundreds of local homes and caused closures in one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If you’re planning your own trip to the islands, read on to learn whether the Hawaii volcano eruption will affect you.

What’s the Latest on the Hawaii Volcano Eruption?

One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. But on May 3, 2018, the volcano experienced a more explosive eruption following a magnitude 5.0 earthquake. Since then the site has seen increased seismic activity (including frequent tremors and quakes) and a series of eruptions through various fissures, which are spreading ash and lava into the surrounding area.

According to CNN, lava has covered a 12.5-square-mile portion of the island. To put that into perspective, the Big Island is a total of 4,028 square miles—meaning that the eruption is affecting less than 1 percent of the island’s area.

On Monday, July 16, a “lava bomb” fell on a tour boat in the area, injuring 23 passengers. The vessel, operated by Lava Ocean Tours, was reportedly within about 200 yards of the lava’s entry point into the ocean—a distance permitted by U.S. Coast Guard regulations at the time. The Coast Guard has since increased the size of its safety zone around the lava entry point.

At this point both of the island’s main airports are operating normally, as are the vast majority of the island’s hotels and attractions.

hawaii volcano steam

How’s the Air Quality?

While the area directly affected by lava and ash is small, wind can spread ash, sulfur dioxide, and “vog,” or volcanic smog, to locations elsewhere on the Big Island or even onto neighboring islands. You can check out maps of Hawaii’s Air Quality Index on this page from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Click on the “AQI Loop” tab to see changes over the past few hours.

In most cases the air quality is rated “good” or “moderate” in locations around the Big Island. (For perspective, Los Angeles and New York City often have moderate AQI ratings.) However, you might occasionally see the rating rise into the “USG” range, which stands for “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” This means travelers with lung or heart disease, older adults, and children could experience some ill effects.

Although the vog conditions depend on the wind direction on any given day, trade winds often push it toward the southwest and then up toward Kona. Your best chance of avoiding vog is to stay in the northern part of the island.

Can I Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

Most of the national park is closed indefinitely. Aside from ongoing eruptions and earthquakes, the park has suffered significant infrastructure damage. Travelers can still visit the Kahuku unit of the park, located an hour south of the main entrance; it’s open Wednesdays through Sundays. For more information on the closure, see the park’s FAQ.

kona sunset
Stan Jones/

The Bottom Line: Is Hawaii Safe?

If you’re headed to any Hawaiian island but the Big Island, you can plan your trip without worry. The vast majority of the Big Island is unaffected as well—but if you have lung or heart disease or are otherwise sensitive to air quality, or if Volcanoes National Park is your main reason for visiting, you might wish to reconsider your trip to the Big Island at this time.

For maps and the latest updates on the volcano, see this page from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines and Barclays. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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