Authorities have warned residents to stay away from the neighborhoods evacuated, warning that toxic sulfur dioxide seeping out of almost two dozen cracks in the ground caused by the volcano could prove deadly.
"We may have additional larger, powerful events", USGS geologist Michelle Coombs told reporters after Thursday's eruption.
Lava shoots into the night sky from active fissures on the lower east rift of the Kilauea volcano, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, near Pahoa, Hawaii.
Scientists are warning this could be the first in a string of more violent explosive eruptions, with the next possibly occurring within hours.
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Thursday's eruption lasted only a few minutes, said Coombs who called it "a big event that got people's attention, but did not have widespread impact". This generated an impressive ash plume that looks like thick rain. On May 10, HVO geologists said that as Halema'uma'u drained further, there was a risk it could intersect with the water table underground, and heat that groundwater.
"It's a real dynamic situation up there", she said of the summit. "Protect yourself from ash fallout". "It's not going to be the only one".
Kevin Kushel, a resident of the island, said that Thursday's plume of smoke could be seen miles away.
The noxious gas, normally emitted at unsafe levels only from the volcano's Halemaumau Crater, was seeping at a greater rate from the fissures in Leilani Estates, a residential area of about four square miles in the Big Island's Puna district. Due to elevated sulfur dioxide levels in the area, local schools are also closed, Hawaii County Civil Defense said.
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Thursday's event was, if not the big one, then certainly a big one, researchers said.
He said: "I would like to also remind the rest of the world as well as the rest of the state, Hawaii Island continues to be open for business".
This week's activity is just one of 61 recorded eruptions in the volcano's cycle. The eventual eruptions generated ash clouds more than five miles (8 km) high and threw blocks weighing as much as 28,000 pounds (12,700 kg) out of the crater.
What is happening at Kīlauea is fundamentally different from that 1980 eruption, experts said.
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But phreatic eruptions can still pose a deadly threat to anyone near the eruptive vent - and they are extremely hard to forecast, Poland said.