Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Living with an active Volcano in Hawaii

Kilauea Volcano has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of days. News sources are reporting lava eruptions of 65 to 100 feet following the Pu’u ‘O’o crater collapse on Saturday which ripped open a mile long fissure. But the latest eruption is not new, it is a continuation of our island's construction grand construction project.

For those of us living on Hawaii island, the volcanoes are constantly reminding us of their presence. They shakes the ground with earthquakes and Kilauea puffs out thousands of tonnes of sulfur dioxide and poisonous gasses every day. In Kalapana, where the lava is pouring into the sea, residents watch the shifting lava flows and witness houses and roads being consumed by lava.

The most popular place to view the Volcano's activity is in Volcanoes National Park at Jaggar Museum which has a lookout over the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. You can watch it remotely from USGS live cameras overlooking the crater.

But the Pu’u O’o crater, where all the excitement is happening is not easy to see. The activity is in an inaccessible area of Volcanoes National park. The best views of the lava fountains are from a helicopter, assuming the area is safe to fly near. The USGS has set up live cameras of the crater, but the volcanic gases usually obscure the action:
USGS cameras positioned on the east rim of Puʻu ʻŌʻō's crater
USGS cameras positioned on the north rim of Puʻu ʻŌʻō's crater.

The lava flows out of the park from Pu’u O’o crater to the ocean. The County of Hawaii monitors the lava flow outside of the National Park and visitors show up every day at the end of Highway 130 in Puna to view the lava. There is a parking lot with vendors selling pictures, jewelry, water, snacks, coffee, flashlights, T shirts, etc. The best views are at night when the surreal red glow contrasts to the pitch blackness of the night and the stars are clear and bright above. But even with a guide, flashlights, and proper shoes the trek to the lava is incredibly dangerous. Deep lava tubes and crevices are hard to see at night, the lava is surface is not flat, and chunks of lava can give way suddenly underneath your feet. Most of the land is private property and you may run into unsavory characters out on the lava fields.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense staffs the Kalapana viewing site and the free parking lot is open from 5 to 10PM to guard and protect visitors. Sometimes County workers block off access to the lava to keep people from walking on unstable ground, so the viewing may be from a distance or obstructed completely depending upon where the flow is located. A County Lava Hotline (808) 961-8093 is updated every day to give information about the current lava flow. Other good sources of information are the Hawaiian Lava Daily Blog and the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory Daily updates.

We know people who have hiked out to the lava after 10PM to avoid the County barricades and get close to the lava for photography. They met with disaster after falling into a crevice and getting a compound fracture to their ankle. It isn’t worth jeopardizing life and limb to get a good view that day. Follow the path, wear good solid shoes, take a jacket, water, flashlight and stay safe. The lava is slippery if wet, so beware when it rains The hot rocks and crevices with rain water make the lava fields a breeding ground for mosquitoes, so take bug spray if they bother you. It is a long drive back to the west side of Hawaii island if you are coming from there, so save your energy to drive safely back.

Walking tours are available for $50 to $75 per person in groups of 20 or more and take 3-4 hours. They are led by land owners in the area and leave at about 6PM and return about 9:30PM. They can lead you closer to the lava and keep you safer. Another option is to take a boat tour which lets you to view the lava from the ocean perspective. The tours run about $150 per person and leave from the Kapoho area.

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