(CNN) – An eruption from the Kilauea volcano’s summit shot ash and smoke into the air early Thursday on Hawaii’s Big Island, and the resulting plume is expected to cover the surrounding area, according to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Nearby residents are being asked to shelter in place if they are in the path of the ash plume, which the wind is carrying to the southeast of the volcano.
“Driving conditions may be dangerous so if you are driving pull off the road and wait until visibility improves,” an alert from the observatory warned.
Thursday’s eruption is just the latest volcanic activity contributing to the nightmare on the Big Island since the volcano first went off May 3.
An ash plume Wednesday rose roughly 12,000 feet into the air, and on Tuesday, the US Geological Survey issued a red alert, which means a major eruption is imminent or underway and ash could affect air traffic.
It is not clear if this was a phreatic eruption, which US Geological Survey officials have been saying is capable of sending ash plumes as far as 12 miles away from the summit.
These are steam-driven explosions that occur when water beneath the ground or on the surface is heated by magma, lava, hot rocks or new volcanic deposits, the USGS says. The intense heat may cause that water to boil and result in eruptions.
The lava lake in the crater has been dropping since May 2, which increases the chances for a phreatic explosion, but it will be difficult to warn residents who may be in the path of such an eruption.
Phreatic eruptions are “notoriously hard to forecast, and can occur with little or no warning,” Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist Janet Babb said.
While the ash being launched into the sky is not poisonous, Hawaii County officials have warned residents about toxic sulfur dioxide seeping out of 21 fissures caused by the volcano.
“Severe conditions may exist such as choking and inability to breathe,” the county’s Civil Defense Agency said Wednesday. “This is a serious situation that affects the entire exposed population.”