(CN) – Officials in Hawaii closed a popular lava viewing location, roads and some schools on parts of the Big Island on Wednesday, as earthquake swarms signal a potential eruption of a new vent on the east side of Kilauea volcano.
The youngest and southeastern-most volcano in Hawaii, Kilauea is now under watch for eruption after scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey issued a Volcano Activity Notice on Tuesday.
“Overnight, earthquakes continued at a high rate in the area of the rift zone from Highway 130 eastward towards Kapoho. Many events were felt by residents and there have been reports of nearly constant ground vibration in some areas,” a message from the survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said Wednesday morning.
“There is a general trend of migration of seismicity eastward. An outbreak of lava in a new location along the east rift zone is possible but not certain,” the message continued.
The magma system beneath Kilauea’s east rift zone has become increasingly pressurized. Scientists say if conditions persist a new vent could form on either side of the existing Puu Oo cone or on an adjacent area.
In recent days as many as 8 to 10 earthquake temblors per hour have rocked the nearest populated community of Puna. Magma is currently accumulating ‘at shallow depths’ beneath the existing Puu Oo eruption.
Hawaii County officials warn sudden breakouts of lava are extremely hazardous and the direction of flow is impossible to predict ahead of their formation.
“Should an eruption occur, residents along the east rift zone may have little warning. Residents in that area should be prepared to evacuate,” Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said in a statement.
“The risk areas and possible hazards are being identified.”
Areas downrift of Puu Oo east of Highway 130 are the most likely spot for a potential outbreak to occur based on the location of the current seismic activity, according to officials and scientists keeping a close watch on the situation.
Volcano experts believe that a river of rising magma is flowing down toward Puna, extending east, possibly under Highway 130.
Kua O Ka La New Century Public Charter School in Pahoa canceled classes Wednesday as a precautionary measure, according to Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission.
Hawaii County closed the Kalapana lava viewing area as well. The area often attracts 500 to more than 2,000 visitors, depending on the level of volcanic activity.
Hawaii County Civil Defense has opened its emergency operations center and identified shelters if evacuation orders are issued to residents as quakes continued overnight in Puna and moved eastward toward the community of Kapoho.
Scientists have installed additional GPS monitoring equipment and deployed crews to put in more monitoring tools, according to U.S. Geological Survey.
Residents in the area should remain vigilant as the seismic activity means that lava could break to the surface, and it “could do so fairly quickly,” Janet Babb, observatory geologist-in-charge, said.
The last time a major vent opened in the area was June 27, 2014. The event, named the “June 27th Flow” sent lava flowing more than 12 miles into the town of Pahoa.
The eponymous event closed roads for weeks, forced evacuations and claimed several structures, including one home. It continued until March 2015, when another vent opening redirected the lava flow toward the ocean.
More than 45 earthquakes were measured at Kilauea from midnight to 10 a.m. Wednesday. Most registered at around magnitude 2.0. In total, more than 250 small quakes have been recorded in recent days, including a magnitude 4.0 just offshore of Puu Oo early Tuesday.
However, Hawaii Volcano Observatory research geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua told state news outlets that the recent seismic activity is similar to what happened before the Kilauea eruption in February 1955. During that eruption, at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and lava covered about 3,900 acres.
Coastal communities from Kalapana to Kapoho were evacuated and sections of every public road to the coastline were buried by lava before the eruption abruptly stopped in May 1955, Kauahikaua added.