On Hawaii, lava is a way of life. The whole island is made of the stuff. Eruptions from Kilauea volcano have been adding new land and wiping out old for all of human time, and far before. In recent decades, lava flows have wiped out communities and major roads. The latest eruption, which began in June 2014, now threatens the small town of Pahoa. Most residents see the volcanism as something to accept, and adapt to. For scientists, it is a prime chance to study the causes of eruptions, the physics of lava flows, and how modern society can best cope. (All photos by Kevin Krajick)
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An eruption from Kilauea’s flank began in summer 2014. By fall, a stream of lava had reached the outskirts of the town of Pahoa, about 11 miles distant. It flowed through this farm, taking out pastures, trees, fences and the owners’ house. For some reason, the detached garage in the middle was surrounded, but not touched.
At Kilauea’s summit, gases above a lava lake within Halema’uma’u crater cast an eerie glow at dusk. In native Hawaiian cosmology, Halema’uma’u is the body and home of Pele, the goddess of wind, fire and lightning. Summit eruptions have come and gone for centuries, sometimes throwing out giant lava fountains or fatal clouds of rocks and gases. The lava lake in its current form surfaced in 2008, but has so far remained harmlessly confined to the crater.
At the lip of Halema’uma’u, volcanologist Einat Lev of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory prepares to study the lava lake, some 300 feet below. Constantly roiled by rising magma, it exhales hydrogen sulfide and other deadly gases. Thin plates of solidified lava blanket much of the surface; the red-hot liquid just underneath is seen swirling in the cracks. (Courtesy Matt Patrick, USGS)
At an observatory near the summit, the U.S. Geological Survey monitors Halema’uma’u and other potential danger spots around the clock. Lev and USGS volcanologist Matt Patrick discuss a real-time infrared image of the lava lake. Data from geophysical instruments appears on screens below.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encloses much of Kilauea, and it sees 2 million visitors a year. At a popular roadside stop, tourists can get up close to a steam vent.
A 1969-1974 eruption from a vent below the summit covered large areas of the park. Once the eruption was over and things cooled off, officials cut a new road through the barren landscape. A bit of vegetation has since sprouted.
Foreground, the summit of Mauna Ulu, source of the 1969-74 flows. Activity could easily resume, so a GPS instrument monitors the ground for swelling—possible warning of lava rising below. In background, gases rise from the Pu’u’O’O vent, which has erupted off and on since 1983, destroying hundreds of houses. Its latest–still ongoing–episode threatens the distant town of Pahoa.
In June 2014, Pu’u’O’O sent a stream of lava slowly burning its way through forest. A few months later, this quarter-mile-wide arm reached the outskirts of Pahoa. It has cooled enough for researchers cross, but renewed activity could bring more lava.
In fall 2014, the Pu’u’O’O lava flow reached Pahoa itself, first cutting off a small back road. In an effort to keep electricity flowing, the local utility company surrounded poles with piles of cinders, and wrapped them in insulating material. One nearby pole (not pictured) caught fire anyway, and service went out for a while.
The side of the lava stream lapped against a berm surrounding the town transfer station and burst through the fence. Garbage collection was halted for a while, but the lava ran out of energy and stopped just short of the recyclables containers. Collection has resumed.
Lev makes measurements of hardened lava tongues at the rear of the Pahoa transfer station. Close study of how lava interacts with manmade barriers may help lead to more effective strategies to divert or stop future flows.
Tourists and curiosity seekers flock daily to get a glimpse of the damage. Civil defense authorities have closed off most of the area, but visitors can gawk at part of the main flow over a fence.
The flow took out this house, or what remains of it now–the only one claimed so far during this eruption.
Further downhill, Melvin Sugimoto watched as the lava breached his small farm, taking out 4 acres of macadamia-nut trees. Using heavy equipment, he has since dug out some of the hardened lava, and piled up the resulting boulders. “You want to buy some rocks?” he joked with a visitor.
In an effort to contain the lava, Sugimoto and his next-door neighbor built a series of berms. These were only partly successful, but his cacao patch (rear) was spared.
The flow buried a collection of scrapped vehicles before halting short of Sugimoto’s house.
Pahoa’s main street, a few hundred feet beyond, is prepared for the worst. The lava advance has paused for now, but authorities are still on the alert. Further activity could wreck many buildings, and cut road access to the surrounding district.
To study the details of how lava interacts with underlying topography, researchers from the nearby University of Hawaii, Hilo, deploy camera-carrying drones to map the flow and surrounding area at a fine scale. Here, geospatial analyst Nicolas Turner directs a drone flight via laptop.
Atop the recently hardened flow, Einat Lev gauges underlying temperatures. A crack just behind her registered 660 degrees Fahrenheit—an indication, she says, that liquid lava might still be somewhere below the surface.
Flows can travel rapidly for long distances via peculiar tunnels called lava tubes. Here, a dormant example in the national park is a popular tourist haunt. A tube usually starts as a trough on the flow’s surface. As hot liquid runs through, material splashes up and hardens to form banks, higher and higher—then eventually, a ceiling. Thus insulated from heat loss, lava can rush through like a river. When the eruption stops, the river dries up, but the tunnel remains.
An eruption from the Pu’u’O’O vent in the 1990s headed in a different direction, wiping out the coastal villages of Kaimu and Kalapana before running into the ocean. It created this brand-new shoreline hundreds of yards out from the old one. Erosion has already created some soil, and locals have planted breadfruit trees.
Some remaining Kaimu residents have claimed the land created by the 1990s lava flow for the Hawaiian Kingdom, a native sovereignty movement that disputes U.S. annexation of the islands. The state of Hawaii says the land belongs to it, but no one seems to be fighting over it.
The burial of Robert Po’okapu Keli’iho’omalu, patriarch of a large Kaimu family whose property was among the few spared by the 1990s eruption. They have since thrived, turning their place into an everybody-welcome destination with Hawaiian music, food and fun. When ‘Uncle Robert’ died in March 2015, hundreds came to celebrate his life. His tomb is, of course, made of volcanic boulders.
Hawaii’s native people have been dealing with lava in all its forms since first landing, about 1,500 years ago. Some 23,000 ancient petroglyphs at Pu’u Loa, near the southwest coast, date back about 500 years. They are still held sacred. Traditionally, people have laid their children’s umbilical cords in the rock depressions to ensure good health and longevity.
Alongside the destructive Pahoa lava flow, a local gives the shaka sign–an expression of the Hawaiian aloha spirit of peace, welcome and respect for nature. It is often translated as “right on,” or “hang loose.” Here, it is probably more like: “No worries—everything’s gonna be OK!”