In May of 2001 my family and some friends went to the Big Island for the first time. I think we stayed at Kilauea Military Camp right in the park. While Pele was evident in Volcanoes National Park by the steam vents, you couldn’t see lava. So we took a helicopter ride. From the safety of the air we saw the last three remaining houses of the Royal Gardens neighborhood-which had largely been destroyed in the lava flow of 1990. Other sights included a faint glimmer of lava in the Kilauea caldera and some lava trickling in the ocean.
That trickle had an accompanying white plume of steam. The pilot/guide assured us it was a toxic cloud of basically hydrochloric acid. As we circled around the plume, he added that it was so corrosive that even heavy duty equipment designed for brutal conditions had a very short life span if left in the area for even hours. This was our introduction into what has recently been called laze in the extensive media coverage.
My point in this story is that laze is by no means a “new” threat. Those of us who have traveled and hiked Kilauea have heard the warnings of avoiding areas where the lava pours into the ocean, before. Indeed, there have been deaths attributed to exposure to the steam. The difference now seems to be that the areas of Lower Puna and the Ka’u desert have been increasing in population in the past twenty years. According to non-confirmed reports 20,000 more residents have moved into the area within that time.
The term laze is not a new term. It seems to be in the volcanology literature as far back as 1912 when mentioned in a chemistry textbook by Edward Thorpe. Of course it is possible that the term existed before. The thing to know is laze is dangerous and exposure is potentially fatal. However, the good news is while laze is much more dangerous than its cousin vog; laze does not have nearly the persistence of vog. The Hawaii Volcano Observatory reported yesterday (May 20th, 2018) that it can be carried at most 15 miles. Like vog, it is impossible to get a consistent measure of its chemical and particulate make up due to the constantly changing nature of the lava. Below is an imperfect but simple way of distinguishing between vog and laze.