Big Island, Hawaii, Part 2

This is the second of a three part article about the volcanoes of Big Island, Hawaii. In the first, I discussed their background and explained some of the terms used to describe the lava that can been seen there. In this part, I will discuss some of the highlights that my wife and I saw during our several trips to the island, including in October 2014.

A night walk to the flowing lava from Kalapana

This was one of the major highlights of our previous trip in 2013. Several local guides conduct walks across the old lava (mostly 1981 to 2013 flows) to wherever the current flow is best viewed. Our lead guide was Dave Ewing (postewing@gmail.com or (808) 315-2256) and our group met up at his house, located on private properties beyond the “End of the road” signs at Kalapana. This house is one of the very few to survive the 2010 flow, which came through the Royal Gardens subdivision and into Kalapana.

1. Going Away Party Panorama xx
Fig. 1. A going away party to mark the long-expected event of the house burning at Kalapana on the night of 25 July 2010. My thanks to Darlene Cripps and Gary Sleik for this picture.

We began in late afternoon, with around a dozen people in the group. The walk initially passed the remnants of some of the other homes – a corrugated roof, a fridge, some pilings, and so on, before getting onto the fresh lava. It was almost five kilometres each way and, although the walking isn’t especially difficult, a couple of hours scrambling over very uneven and lose ground can be tiring. Also, it isn’t for anyone of a nervous disposition or unsure footing, and it really does need a guide, even though you can see the rising steam and smoke from kilometres away. Getting back through pitch darkness is more difficult and, as if to prove my point, another guideless group joined ours on the return with an injured member (sprained ankle).

2. An hour later - house roof xx
Fig. 2. An hour later – the blazing roof is all that remains. My thanks also to Darlene and Gary for this picture.

The fate of Darlene Cripps and Gary Sleik’s home

The fate of one particular home is well documented. The flow that was working its way through and around the village of Kalapana circled round the back of the house, until it was three-quarters surrounded. Then, it restarted from the front, finally touching the woodwork at the foot of the outside stairs. The house was gone in a blaze within the hour, as the owners, friends and neighbours held a ‘going away’ house-burning party on the night their property went up in flames. 25 July 2010 was the final night for the home of Darlene Cripps and Gary Sleik, who took many pictures and made a DVD of the event and the guilty lava. The charred foundations are now under 12m of lava. The lobate lava that covered the area and burned the houses down was fluid and only about a 30cm deep at any one time. The corrugated tin roof collapsed after less than an hour of the fire, but then ‘floated’ on top of the lava, as it continually inflated beneath the roof over the following months.

My thanks to Darlene and Gary for allowing me to use their photographs (Figs. 1 and 2). Gary is now rebuilding his home on the same 23-acre plot; and Darlene manages the accommodation where we stayed in Kaimu: http://www.vrbo.com/460059.

We arrived in the vicinity of the moving lava just before sundown, enabling the taking of several pictures of the lava formations in the daylight. The warmth of the ground was suddenly noticeable and, as the sun disappeared, so the lava seemed to come to life. All around us, there were red glowing patches and streaks – many of them moving slowly or taking on a sudden spurt. We were completely surrounded by small flows less than a metre across. In the daylight, they weren’t visible as molten lava, but with the sun down, it was like a lighted garden park. We stayed in the area for an hour or so, watching the lobes and fronts advancing and swelling; crusting, crinkling and restarting as long tongues, pushing the surface into wrinkled, ropey masses. Other groups were there, with or without guides, but it only added up to about 30 people all told. A few people pushed sticks into the moving surface to watch them catch fire and a few tried jumping over the molten tongues. There was no feeling of any danger (other than from foolishness), as the lava moved quite slowly and the guide was keeping a check on the overall situation. Apart from a few over-excited visitors, most people seemed to have a reverential view of the world-creating happenings around them and simply watched the new land being formed in near-silence. What made the most noise was the surface of the lava as it cooled – a thin, but rigid skin forms as the lobes slow down and settle, but the leisurely continuing movement cracks this and sends flakes scattering away, sometimes several metres into the air. The effect is much more dramatic when it rains and cools the lava surface more suddenly, at which time, there can be a veritable cloud of flying flakes above the lava.

3. Tin roof IMG_1198
Fig. 3. By May 2013, the roof is rusted and the forest is gone.

From this vantage point among the moving flow, it was possible to look down over the cliff edge (about 30m high at that point), to watch lava slowly pouring towards the sea from a variety of points down the cliff face, where small tubes had their openings. This gave an unearthly glow to the whole water surface and rock faces. However, it wasn’t possible to see the point where the lava actually entered the water.

4. Cloud IMG_1214
Fig. 4. The plume of steam and fumes can be seen for miles around.

Watching the lava forming, moving, taking shape all around is the only way to understand the wondrous nature of the stuff – how the various shapes and twists are created, and take on such superbly varied (yet similar) shapes and patterns. Observing it actually happen gives so much more meaning to what you are looking at when walking on cold lava here or anywhere else in the world.

5. evening glow comes on IMG_4523
Fig. 5. As evening falls, all around there seem to be glowing patches and cracks that you hadn’t noticed in the full sun.

The walk back to the house and car parking was in complete darkness, apart from carried torches or flashlights. It would definitely not have been easy without a guide, especially as the lava flows here were changing on a daily basis. It only takes a moment for one lava front to stall and another to break out close by, or at a distance of a few hundred metres, for there to be problems. The internal pressures within lava flows are constantly built up and released – inflating one lobe for a time and stalling another. There had been news reports of two people being severely injured earlier in the year, when a foot went through the newly-formed lava skin. During December 2014, it wasn’t possible to do this walk, as the lava stopped moving in this direction late in 2013. Once the current ‘June 27’ flow has settled, it might well be possible to conduct similar day or night walks to the new flow and there are several Internet sites with close-up footage of the flows already. Or Madame Pele might change her mind again and send the lava flowing southwards to the sea once more. Check the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) site for daily updates and maps at http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php or just Google HVO.

6. Lobes and ropes down the slope IMG_4561
Fig. 6. Moving in lobes and rope patches down the hillside, the lava seems to cover the whole slope.

The lava-falls at the ‘Ocean Entry’

In 2008, we visited this area for a short stay and it was a time when the lava was entering the sea a few kilometres or so from Kalapana. The access was controlled by the Civil Defence, just past the ‘End of the road’ signs on Highway 130, where the lava had swallowed the road in a number of flows over the previous years. The column of rising steam and smoke could be seen from at least three kilometres away in Pahoa, driving from Hilo. There was a large car park and a street market, with dozens of enterprising stallholders, some with general merchandise and others with lava-related items, such as lights, drinks, lava ashtrays and photographs of the lava and lava caves. Some of these photographs had been taken from the stern of boats that had backed up perilously close to the lava-falls, to peer inside the active tubes from which the lava was pouring out. The cameramen had to wait until a large wave lifted them to a height sufficient to see inside the lava tubes and take a quick photo, then rev up and depart swiftly. For such bravado, they deserved every cent of their charges for the terrific quality of pictures.

7. boat gets close IMG_4609
Fig. 7. The sight-seeing boat is getting a closeup view of the lava entering the ocean.

A twenty-minute walk from the car park led to a viewing area a few hundred metres from the active drop into the sea. As we approached, the plume was extremely impressive, particularly the sight of tornadoes within the plume and coming from it. These spun out of the main, hot centre of the steam, whirling away, spinning and twisting until they cut loose and drifted off, to be replaced by another. Closer approach was not permitted, although we did see a few people going over the private land closer to the lava. It was impressive by daylight, with great columns of smoke and steam shooting skywards over our heads. Blasting up through the steam, there were frequent spatter explosions of red lava flying high. Within the steam plume, there were constant sudden updrafts, like vertical tunnels of rock and steam sucking powerfully upwards; followed a moment later by a fall of fine ash, turning the cloud to a mass of dark descending curtains. At times, there would be an especially loud thump, denoting a steam explosion, where a particularly large mass of lava had tumbled into the water and flashed some of the sea into steam. These would result in huge masses of lava fragments and hot cinders hurtling perhaps a hundred metres upwards, and lots of oohs and aahs from the audience.

8. Lobes and flakes IMG_4551
Fig. 8. Lobes of glowing lava cool within a minute of forming; the flakes that spit off can be seen on the grey cooled patches.

Although it wasn’t possible to see the lava falls hitting the waves, the sea was visible a little further out. The water was steaming heavily and giving rise to whirling tornadoes across the surface. They varied from a meter or so across to the size of a boat – and there was a boat among them at times. This looked incredible – imagine the view that those people must have had – until a particularly large blast sent glowing fragments over a huge area and the boat retreated. Local gossip says that one boat owner has lost two vessels on these forays. Sometimes, there was just the one tornado spinning away and, at other times, there would be a train of them heading out to sea, to disappear as they cooled and lost their source of power.

9. A beautiful runnel of ropey lava IMG_4545
Fig. 9. A beautiful runnel of ropey lava already beginning to crust over, even as it is only exposed for a few seconds.

Even more amazingly, there were several helicopters buzzing around the whole steaming plume. This was a must, so we were up there two days later as part of a volcanic highlights helicopter ride. We did get as close as it appeared from the ground and it was very spectacular. Photographs were difficult to take, as the craft was being buffeted about in the hot swirling air. Views looking down into the exploding mass are especially interesting, when the fragments are heading straight up towards you.

10. night steamIMG_4666
Fig. 10. A final look back at the spectacular steam cloud lit from beneath, as the lava-falls enter the water.

As the sun dropped, so the glow from the lava picked up and the steam clouds were lit from beneath in great roiling masses. These were extremely spectacular – red clouds blasted by frequent explosions of lava fragments, rising majestically into the gathering gloom. Particularly noticeable was the colour contrast between the glowing steam clouds here and the sulphurous clouds emanating from Halemaumau far away in the background, illuminated by the sun behind them.

In the later evening, the glow within the plume intensified from the dull red ball that it had been and took on the appearance of boiling swirls, illuminated by explosions and short-lived fire fountains. This was breathtaking. The viewing area is not open all night and is locked at 9.00pm. The car park is still there and accessible to lava-walkers during the daytime, and so are most of the signs warning about the eruption and the opening/closing times – six years after it ended. However, this is likely to change very shortly, as this is the Hwy 130 road that is being reconstructed across the earlier flows in case the new lava blocks it north of Pahoa.


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