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Volcano show time on the Big Island.

Volcano show time on the Big Island

Rivers of fire are flowing once again on the Big Island of Hawaii.

At our press deadline, molten streams of glowing lava were intermittently flowing over Chain of Craters Road, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and steaming into the sea near the Wahaula Visitor Center (see map on page 73). It was the latest phase in Kilauea's eruption at Puu Oo--an eruption that was five years old in January.

Last Thanksgiving, we took an easy 1/2-mile walk to watch Pele, Hawaiian goddess of the volcano, at work. It was dusk, and orange fingers of lava oozed like toothpaste over the older flows and into the waves. Clouds of steam smelling faintly of sulfur poured out of the sea, glowing by the light of the lava. As we approached the flow, the heat pushed out like a wall. Even the older lava was still warm enough underfoot to evaporate raindrops from a passing shower.

Depending on the course of the continually changing flow, visitors could accompany a ranger to within a few yards of the molten streams. Helicopter charter outfits were also offering spectacular flights over a remote lava lake that had formed near the Puu Oo cinder cone.

While volcanologists stress that they can't predict what will happen from one day to the next, the current eruptive phase has shown no sign of diminishing.

We don't recommend that you jump a jet to the the Big Island solely on the chance of catching Pele's latest hot act. But if you're already planning a trip, now may be as good a time as ever to see her island-building process in action.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is well worth a visit for its own sake. You shouldn't miss hikes around steaming Kilauea Caldera, two spectacular park drives, and a fine new museum.

We've been here before

In September 1971, Sunset reported on similar activity at nearby Mauna Ulu--a five-year eruption that obliterated a section of the old Chain of Craters Road before the fireworks stopped in 1974.

A follow-up report in October 1979 announced the reopening of the newly routed Chain of Craters Road. At that time, a park geologist admitted, "Even the best design would be meaningless in the face of another full-scale eruption, and that could happen tomorrow.'

Puu Oo is certainly full-scale. This March it will become Hawaii's second longest continuous eruption in recorded history. A steady magma outflow of some 650,000 cubic meters (about 850,000 cubic yards) per day is the largest eruption of this century. Chain of Craters Road was closed once again, in November '86, at Wahaula.

But unlike the other recent eruptions, Puu Oo has taken a tragic toll: flowing lava has consumed 57 houses near the park's eastern boundary. Several popular natural attractions have also been buried, including a seafront blowhole and a fresh-water pool near Kalapana.

Tracking the "hot spot'

While this eruption has been costly, it has also become a spectacular and easily-- and safely--accessible example of rarely viewed volcanic activity.

But to understand what is happening here, you have to understand how Hawaiian volcanoes work.

The island of Hawaii is the latest of a long chain of islands being built over a geological phenomenon called the Hawaiian hot spot. Essentially an immense reservoir of molten rock just 40 miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Plate, the hot spot forces magma up through cracks in the plate, which is creeping by at some 2 inches per year, about the same rate as fingernails grow.

This adds up. In 6 million years, the hot spot built the Hawaiian Islands; over some 70 million years, it has strung a chain of submarine mountains from Hawaii to the tip of the Aleutian Islands.

Unlike most other volcanoes, including Cascade Range peaks like Mount St. Helens, Hawaii's volcanoes are seldom explosive. Their magma tends to be fluid and low in gas, resulting in relatively gentle, spreading flows that build a shield-shaped mountain. The results can be impressive. Mauna Kea--one of the island's other volcanic mountains--is the tallest mountain on earth, rising nearly 33,000 feet above the ocean floor.

Around the caldera: a steaming crater, lava tube, devastated trail, new museum

Whether or not the lava is flowing, this island-building process is highly visible in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You can sample the major attractions in a day from Hilo, but the park is big enough-- with several good hikes--that you may want to plan a longer stay.

First stop should be the visitor center at the entrance ($5 per car) near the village of Volcano, about an hour's drive southwest of Hilo; it's open daily from 7:30 to 5. Rangers can give you a map and information on current volcanic activity and special interpretive programs. Ask where you can rent cassette tape guides to the park by historian Russ Apple.

When lava is flowing, go to see it immediately; eruptions may last only an hour or two. If nothing is happening, your best introduction to the park is the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive around the edge of the Kilauea Caldera.

Newest attraction along the loop drive is a small museum named for pioneer volcanologist Thomas A. Jaggar. Located next to the USGS's volcano observatory, it introduces the mechanics of Kilauea's eruptions and traces the long history of scientific observation at the volcano. One exhibit shows seismic activity caused by magma movement deep in the earth.

Allow half a day to drive the loop, enough time to stroll to the edge of the still-steaming Halemaumau Crater, hike the mile-long Devastation Trail, and walk the short loop through Thurston Lava Tube. Other good hikes include the 6-mile trip on Halemaumau Trail through Kilauea Caldera and the 3-mile Kilauea Iki Trail.

Chain of Craters Road branches to the south off Crater Rim Drive. In 28 miles, it steeply descends some 4,000 feet, first edging the East Rift Zone (you can turn off for a 1-mile trail to Mauna Ulu, site of the last major eruption), then crossing three active fault escarpments. The road finally edges the coast, ending at the Wahaula Visitor Center.

If you're lucky you'll see lava flowing

As with fishing, seeing a volcanic eruption in progress is largely a matter of luck. Still, Wahaula is where you're most likely to see current activity.

Park at the visitor center (open daily 8 to 5). Generally, rangers will direct you down the road or along a coastal trail-- either about a 1/2-mile walk. A ranger should also be at the actual eruption site to answer questions and to help you approach the flows safely.

Walk out on lava only when escorted by a ranger. The crust that forms almost immediately over fresh lava can be easily broken. Even flows that have cooled have thin, brittle crusts over hollow tubes and holes; serious injuries can result if you step through.

Ideal time for photography is just before sunset (carry a flashlight), when there's still enough light for detail but it is dusky enough to intensify the reds of the lava.

The other side of the eruption

To get an idea of just how massive and destructive this current eruption has been, drive to the end of State 130, on the east side of this 2 1/2-mile-wide flood of lava. From park headquarters it takes 2 hours, from Hilo about 1 1/2.

From the park or Hilo, take State 11 to Keaau, then head south on State 130 through the old town of Pahoa to the coast. In the nearby village of Kalapana, you'll find two small stores and fast food stands, the black sand beach, and (a few miles farther, at the end of the highway) what's left of Kapaahu Homesteads.

There isn't much: tin roof panels, a bathtub, twisted steel supports, and the burned-out frame of a car are embedded in hardened lava. While Kapaahu (and Royal Gardens, on the west side of the flow) has been declared a disaster area, it does little to help the few remaining residents who wonder daily if--or when-- Pele will claim their homes.

Planning ahead: a base in Hilo, a view from the air, an eruption hot-line

Hilo may be your best overall base for a visit to current eruption sites. Lodging in the park is limited--as is food service.

One of the most dramatic ways to see the eruption and to get an overview of the park is by helicopter. Companies at the volcano and in Hilo are the least expensive. While there are volcano flightseeing tours from fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters hover much closer to the action.

For details on lodging and helicopter tours of the park, see page 62.

For recorded up-to-date information on the eruption, call (808) 967-7977. For general park information, write to Superintendent, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Box 52, Hawaii 96718.

At 4,000 feet (the elevation around Kilauea Caldera), weather can be chilly. Rain--usually misting but sometimes heavy--can occur any time. Sturdy shoes will help protect feet from jagged lava. Carry a sweater, windbreaker, sun screen, brimmed hat, and camera.

Photo: Lava lake's metallic surface is like the crust on a pudding:

thin cracks reveal red magma churning beneath. Helicopter tours visit lake and steaming cinder cone of Puu Oo

Photo: Orange "toes' of pahoehoe lava ooze past ranger (yellow shirt) and visitor where flows cross Chain of Craters Road

Photo: Glowing chunks of molten rock hiss into the sea in great steaming splashes as visitor photographs recent lava flows in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Photo: Metal mailbox embedded in lava is all that's left of one home at end of road on Kalapana side of flow

Photo: Steaming Halemaumau Crater is seen from rim of Kilauea Caldera at Jaggar museum, where visitors (below) learn volcano dynamics

Photo: Lava curiosities--including glassy black lava, bubble fragments, foamy pumice, Pele's tear, and glass threads of Pele's hair--can be found along Chain of Craters Road

Photo: Kilauea eruptions. Except for infrequent eruptions of nearby Mauna Loa, volcanic activity in Hawaii this century has been on Kilauea. Map shows recent activity in Kilauea Caldera (above), 1969-74 at Mauna Ulu (right), and 1983-to-present activity of the Puu Oo eruption (far right)

Photo: Phase 1: Current eruption began in January 1983 with a 200-foot-high "curtain of fire' spraying from cracks along 2 1/2 miles of the East Rift Zone. Eruptions gradually consolidated to one vent in a remote area of park, where a cinder cone named Puu Oo grew from regular eruptions (about one a month)

Photo: Phase 2: July 1986 earthquake swarms dramatically changed underground flows, and magma formed a lake of churning lava. Flows became constant, alternating between the surface and underground tubes. Lava first reached the ocean in November 1986

Photo: At our deadline: Chain of Craters Road is closed at Wahaula Visitor Center. Lava is flowing intermittently on surface over road and into ocean, with an estimated 50 acres of land added to island. When it's flowing, rangers supervise public access and viewing. Outside the park, lava has destroyed 57 houses in Kalapana area
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Title Annotation:Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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