It was the middle of the night when I clambered out of bed and into the car (shamelessly bundled in fox-print pajamas, a vest, a fleece, thick socks and slippers) to drive up the slopes of Kīlauea toward the park. The night was blanketed in velvet, a crystal clear sky bedecked in starlight, and my yawns could not dissuade me from continuing toward the summit of the volcano. Not when I had been drawn from bed by a text from my supervisor that read simply “EPIC!” Knowing that she was already at Jaggar observation deck, the text could refer to only one thing: Kīlauea’s lava lake, which had been dramatically rising and falling over the past week.
The experience resulting from my lava-filled evening reminded me that I’ve been in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park for 4 months, and I have yet to write a blog about the volcanoes!
The Hawaiian island chain was born from its volcanoes. A hotspot beneath the Pacific Plate, on which the islands sit, feeds magma from the earth’s mantle up through the plate and into the ocean, where it builds into a volcano. As the hotspot, itself, has remained stationary over the past 40 million years or so, the plate above it has steadily migrated west-northwest, resulting in a whopping 82 volcanoes to dot the Hawaiian ridge! These volcanoes are the foundations for the islands, themselves, as the lava provided the raw material for land growth. As a result, when the volcanoes erupt and lava makes it to the ocean, new land mass is tacked onto the islands, little by little.
Hawai’i Island, by far the largest in the chain, is the most recent to hover above the hotspot, and sports a good handful of volcanoes (5 total). The most impressive of these are the jewels of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. While the former is perhaps earth’s most active volcano, erupting 60 times since 1840, Mauna Loa is one of earth’s largest, towering 33,000ft from ocean floor to summit, resting at 13,800ft above sea level. Both are cultural and geological treasure troves, chock full of endemic species specialized to live on the dramatic lava landscape, and home to Hawai’i’s patron goddess Pele, said to live in Halema‘uma‘u crater at Kīlauea’s summit.
Even more impressive, and more to the point, Kīlauea is now the only volcano in the world erupting from two locations: One at Pu’u Ō’ō that has been ongoing since January of 1983, and a newer one down at the coast. As it’s created from a hotspot in the middle of a tectonic plate, rather than in a subduction zone, Kīlauea (like all the islands’ volcanoes) is a shield volcano. As a result, the eruptions are not Mt. St. Helens-style explosions. Rather, they have a higher concentration of silica, leaving the flows more viscous, likely to flow smoothly across the landscape and bubble in the summit crater rather than recreate Disney’s rendition of Firebird.
Which isn’t to say Pele isn’t dramatic.
Since my arrival at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (HAVO), its volcanoes have created one exciting event after another: A breakout lava flow has steadily worked its way toward the coast over the three months I’ve been here, and last month even hit the ocean! Now the summit lake is putting on a show. Goddess Pele has certainly decided to make the centennial year interesting!
From several vantage points in the park, a towering plume of what looks like smoke (but is actually particulates) can be seen rising from Kīlauea’s caldera. At night, the view is even more spectacular. Driving toward Jagger museum the inky darkness of the sky (because HAVO also has tremendous night skies) blends into a deep red glow rising much higher and further through the stars than the plume seems to in daylight. Often, that’s the extent of the show—a hypnotizing swath of red rising from the earth’s depths. But sometimes, and recently, Pele brings the lava up into view, and it can be seen from Jagger to spatter out from the crater.
Despite the amazing events of Kīlauea crater in recent nights, it’s the flows down at the coast that have been receiving all the attention lately. Over the past couple of months the flow has made its way steadily toward the ocean, and Pele finally went for a swim in August! Said to be an embodiment of Pele, herself, the lava takes one of two forms: chunky a’a, or smooth, ropey pahoehoe, depending on the silica content and a host of other factors. In both cases, the flows are sacred to native Hawaiians. Trips down to see the lava, both before and since its ocean entry, have been incredible high points in my time here thus far. This is not only due to the awe-inspiring nature of the lava itself, but also because of the chances it has afforded me to witness park Law Enforcement and Interpretation rangers in action.
An accessible lava flow like this one is a delicate situation, at best. For a park striving toward balance between geology, biology and culture, our mission comes to a head in situations like these. The lava is considered by native Hawaiians to be a manifestation of Pele, and as a result demands an etiquette of respect. That being said, it’s hard to curb the enthusiasm of visitors who are staring at the geological miracle of flowing lava—probably for the first time—and tell them they can’t roast marshmallows over it (respect aside, do you know how many particulates probably get in your s’more that way?!)
These delicate situations drive home, for me, why it is that the national park service is so important. We have rangers up at Jaggar observation deck and down at the flow fields regularly, making sure everyone is safe and respectful. They have to tell people all the time not to poke Pele’s lava with a stick, no matter how cool it is to watch it catch on fire; they remind people to bring water out to the fields, and wear the right footwear (no flip flops!); they remind people at Jaggar not to go past the deck because there’s a 400-foot drop. The balance is delicate—a dance on tip-toe between the lines of cultural respect, geological wonder and the human awe over the coolness of nature. But at the end of the day it’s NPS rangers and managers that make sure that tightrope stays taught and skillfully steers the public toward respect and safety.
Staring out over the incredible glow of lava, I came away prouder than ever to work for the organization that brings the population closer to its natural wonders, encourages stewardship and cultural appreciation, and has protected and preserved the wildness of canyons, forests, rivers, lakes, and volcanoes for the past 100 years. Here’s to the next hundred!