The world's largest active volcano has begun to erupt for the first time in nearly 40 years, prompting volcanic ash and debris to fall nearby.

The summit caldera of the volcano on the Big Island erupted late Sunday night. It stated early Monday that lava flows were contained within the summit area and weren't threatening nearby communities.

There are lava flows in the summit region. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said there was no evidence of migration of the eruption into a rift zone. There is a rift zone where the mountain is splitting apart, the rock is weak and it is easier for magma to emerge.

Miel Corbett, a spokesman for the US Geological Survey, said it was impossible to predict how long the volcano would erupt.

She said that Hawaii Civil Defense is giving updates to community members.

The civil defense agency said it has opened shelters in Kailua-Kona and Pahala because it has reports of people self-evacuating along the South Kona coast.

Images on social media show lava activity outside of the caldera. There has been no confirmation of lava migration into a rift zone.

A recent increase in earthquakes at the summit of the volcano has scientists on alert.

Portions of the Big Island were under an ashfall advisory issued by the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

The southernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago is the Big Island of Hawaii.

The larger neighbor to the volcano, which erupted in a residential neighborhood and destroyed 700 homes, is called Mauna loa. Its lava can flow much faster when it erupts because of its steep slopes.

The mountain's lava traveled to the ocean in less than three hours during a 1950 eruption.

The Impact Report newsletter will look at how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of executives. You can subscribe here