Kilauea Volcano Eruption: Dramatic Photos of Huge Ash Plumes and Lava Flows in Hawaii

Lava explodes from fissure 17 in Leilani Estates on Hawaii's Big Island.Andrew Richard Hara/Ena Media Hawaii/Getty Images
People play golf as an ash plume rises in the distance in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.Mario Tama/Getty Images

The latest dramatic photos of the eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano show towering ash plumes and red hot lava flows advancing towards homes on Big Island.

Ash and volcanic smog—known as “vog”—rose to 12,000 feet above Kilauea's crater and floated southwest, showering cars on Highway 11 with gray dust and prompting an "unhealthy air" advisory in the community of Pahala, 18 miles from the summit.

Ash is a hazard for local residents already grappling with volcanic gas and lava that has destroyed 37 homes and other structures and forced the evacuation of about 2,000 residents.

01 Lava explodes from fissure 17 in Leilani Estates on Hawaii's Big Island. Andrew Richard Hara/Ena Media Hawaii/Getty Images

An aviation red alert means a volcanic eruption is under way that could spew ash along aircraft routes, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said.

"We're observing more or less continuous emission of ash now with intermittent, more energetic ash bursts or plumes," Steve Brantley, a deputy scientist in charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), said on a conference call with reporters. The observatory warned the eruption could become more violent.

"At any time, activity may become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent," the HVO said in a statement on the change in aviation alert level to red from orange.

The area taking the brunt of the eruption is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) down Kilauea's eastern flank, near the village of Pahoa. Lava has burst from the ground to tear through housing developments and farmland, threatening one of the last exit routes from coastal areas, state Highway 132.

The latest fissure in the earth opened on Tuesday (May 15), spewing lava and toxic gases that pushed air quality into "condition red" around Lanipuna Gardens and nearby farms, causing "choking and inability to breathe," the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and Hawaii County Civil Defense said.

Road crews put metal plates over steaming cracks on nearby Highway 130 and reopened it to give coastal residents an escape route should a lava flow reach the ocean and block another road, Highway 137, Civil Defense said. No major injuries or deaths have been reported from the eruption.

A looming menace remains, the possibility of an "explosive eruption" of Kilauea, an event last seen in 1924. Pent-up steam could drive a 20,000-foot ash plume out of the crater and scatter debris over 12 miles, the USGS said. Click through this slideshow to see more dramatic images of the volcanic eruption. 

—Reuters contributed to this report.

Smoke and lava erupt from a fissure near a home on the outskirts of Pahoa.Terray Sylvester/Reuters
Smoke and volcanic gases rise as lava cools over a large area of the Leilani Estates neighborhood of Pahoa. Mario Tama/Getty Images
Stars shine above as a plume rises from the Halemaumau crater, illuminated by glow from a lava lake, within the Kilauea volcano.Mario Tama/Getty Images
A photograph taken from a Civil Air Patrol flight shows an ash plume rising to about 9,500 feet high.U.S. Geological Survey
The eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano is seen from the International Space Station.Andrew J. Feustel/NASA/Reuters
An onlooker watches as lava erupts from a fissure east of the Leilani Estates subdivision.Terray Sylvester/Reuters
A view into Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō crater, the deepest part of which is about 1,150 feet below the rim.U.S. Geological Survey
An ash column rises from the Overlook crater at the summit of Kilauea Volcano.USGS/Reuters
Lava erupts from a fissure east of the Leilani Estates subdivision.Terray Sylvester/Reuters
A fissure glows as lava erupts from it near the Leilani Estates subdivision.Terray Sylvester/Reuters
A U.S. Geological Survey aerial photo of fissure 17 erupting and supplying lava to an advancing flow.U.S. Geological Survey
Lava advances down a road in the Leilani Estates subdivision, taking power lines with it.Terray Sylvester/Reuters