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What’s a red warning and why has it been issued near the Kilauea volcano?

It's been more than two weeks since Hawaii's Kilauea volcano erupted. Up to 20 fissures have cracked open, spewing lava and emitting toxic sulfur dioxide gases into the air. Now there's a new problem.

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A towering plume of volcanic smoke and ash can be seen from miles away. In fact, the plume of smoke has been reported to have climbed to nearly 12,000 feet into the sky and blowing roughly 18 miles down wind. 

This new development has prompted the USGS (United States Geological Survey) to issue a red warning because of the ongoing eruption, alerting pilots and airlines to stay away from this region. 

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So what's causing this thick plume of smoke? 

After the volcano erupted, the lava column has slowly been dropping within the volcano. 

(Courtesy/USGS)

According to the USGS, the caldera itself may be collapsing, dropping hot rocks within the column. If the lava falls below the water table, ground water may come in contact with the magma or hot rocks causing a violent steam explosion like Hawaii is seeing today. 

It's unclear how long this will last as it would take the lava column to climb back above the water table to end the cycle.

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