Travels in Geology: Kilauea: suffering Pele's wrath with the eyes of a young geologist

by Zahra Hirji Tuesday, June 12, 2018


This previous summer, I live a geologist’s dream: residents in a nationwide park and also getting up close and an individual with Hawaii’s infamous Kilauea volcano. For thousands of thousands that years, Hawaii’s Kilauea has actually been erupting on and off. However on Jan. 3, 1983, the volcano started one that its longest (and largest) eruptions, shooting a fountain of lava hundreds of meters into the air. Twenty-seven year later, the volcano is quiet alive and also kicking — in fact, it’s the most energetic volcano in the world. Because that volcanologists, Kilauea is a mecca: an easily accessible active volcano in a picturesque location. So once I landing an chance to volunteer at the U.S. Geological inspection (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory near Kilauea, ns couldn’t refuse.

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The production of Hawaii

Kilauea is situated on Hawaii’s large Island, among the eight major islands that consist of the Hawaiian chain. The islands were formed by a volcano “hot spot,” where a huge mantle plume bring magma up v the facility of the Pacific Plate. As the Pacific plate moves over the hot spot, new volcanoes (and thus new islands) pop up.

Right now the large Island sits atop the hot spot. The island has actually been cultivation for a small over a million years. It to be born indigenous Kohala volcano, which started out together a little vent ~ above the s floor. Over hundreds of thousands of years of recurring eruptions, this shield volcano prospered into the tremendous mountain it is today. As soon as land created by the volcano broke through the sea surface, the officially developed Hawaii’s large Island. Due to the fact that then, the younger Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes have actually all followed the same progressive shield-building process, each including to the big Island’s size.


When Kilauea's lava flows into the ocean, the cools and also solidifies, adding brand-new land to the large Island. Credit: Zahra Hirji, USGS


The Hawaiian island chain was created by a volcanic warm spot. Credit: AGI/NASA

Today, Kilauea is most actively building increase the island. As soon as Kilauea’s flows with the ocean, the lava cools and also solidifies, creating new real estate. However the buildup of soil is slow due to the fact that some that the turbulent fresh land sometimes breaks off right into the ocean, comparable to how glaciers calve off icebergs. Together of January 2007, Kilauea’s currently ongoing, multidecadal eruption had included 201 hectares come the island’s southerly shore, although few of that land has been shed to the ocean.

Some of Kilauea’s volcano neighbors additionally have the potential to expand the dimension of the huge Island. Back Hualalai has actually not erupted due to the fact that 1801 and Mauna Loa has not erupted since 1984, lock are much from die out (see sidebar). If and when these volcanoes blow, they will certainly likely cause much more damage 보다 Kilauea’s eruptions. Previous lava operation from Mauna Loa — i m sorry encompasses half of the huge Island and is the world’s largest volcano — have extended as far as Kona and also Hilo, located on opposite sides of the island.

A go in the Park


Credit: AGI/GeoMapApp, Ryan et al., 2009

From the sky, Kilauea does not look choose much, through a peak just 1,277 meters above sea level. The volcano is practically invisible, tucked away in the southeast edge of the big Island, as its four older, more massive volcanic siblings complete for the horizon.

Driving under the one-lane Highway 11 top top my means to the volcano observatory last April, i did not also realize that ns was on the volcano until I observed a large wooden authorize announcing the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes nationwide Park. When inside the park, however, the proof is everywhere: Huge, scattered igneous boulders serve as remnants of past explosive eruptions and vapor vents heat the road, if gassy, yellowish brown tinted plumes snake high up into the atmosphere.


The 5-kilometer-long journey from the front door to the observatory uses glimpses the the volcano’s caldera, covert behind a vegetated wall of red lehua-flowered `ohi`a trees. The actual breathtaking view, however, is saved for the observatory, i beg your pardon is precariously perched ~ above the sheet of the northern caldera rim, only a stone’s throw from the pond the lava that sits deep within the caldera’s Halema`uma`u crater, one source of Kilauea’s present eruption.

During the last pair of hundreds years, the Kilauea landscape has readjusted dramatically due to the near-constant level of volcanic activity. Eruptions have lasted from just a few hours come a few decades, through each brand-new layer that lava do its mark on the land.

Visitors to the national park have the right to bear angry to these previous eruptions and also observe the recurring one. The park encompasses more than 93,000 hectares, with Kilauea’s 3-kilometer-by-5-kilometer caldera standing in ~ its center. Crater Rim journey encircles the caldera and the surrounding Kilauea Iki crater, making numerous of the park’s highlights easily accessible by car. However, the section of Crater Rim the goes past Halema`uma`u crater is right now closed as result of the buildup the dangerous level of sulfur dioxide gas, and also will most likely remain closed as lengthy as the crater is active.

Hiking is more than likely the best method to suffer Kilauea. Kilauea’s caldera used to host vibrant volcanic entertainment: In the 1800s and early 1900s, follow to observers" reports, the caldera put on mirrors of dance lava fountains and also transient lava lakes. Today, much of the caldera is a dry, barren, rocky place, with just a few stubborn `ohi`a trees sprinkling the floor v color.


Many that the trails the line the perimeter of the caldera, such together the Byron Ledge Trail and the Crater in salt Trail, provide breathtaking views, whereby you can see the carnage of historic magmatic occasions visible in the crater walls and also the caldera floor. If friend close your eyes, it is straightforward to imagine the location when it to be alive, pulsing through red hot lava, glowing throughout the night.

However, the trails won’t gain you close to the facility of the caldera’s current activity — the small Halema`uma`u crater, located in the caldera’s southern corner. The crater, which has existed for thousands of years, almost doubled in dimension to its present dimensions (900 meters across) during a 1924 explosive eruption. The crater’s most recent eruptive phase began in 2008 (Kilauea’s ongoing eruption initially began in the Pu`u `O`o crater, situated south of the caldera in the east Rift Zone). Return the Halema`uma`u Crater Overlook, a 10-minute walk indigenous Crater in salt Drive, is currently closed, you can still see the crater’s erupting plume indigenous the lookout allude near the volcano observatory, simply off Crater in salt Drive.

The observatory is not usually open come the public. But if you contact ahead of time, friend may be able to arrange a rapid tour to watch what the geologists do there. If that doesn’t work-related out, you can still visit the surrounding Jaggar Museum, called for cutting board Jaggar, the MIT geology professor who established the observatory in 1912. The museum describes the breakthrough of the volcano observatory and provides a comprehensive background of Kilauea’s evolution. Friend can additionally watch video clip footage the the Halema`uma`u crater’s energetic lava pond.

The museum likewise explains that Kilauea regularly hosts more than one energetic crater. For example, the Pu`u `O`o crater in the eastern Rift ar is tho active. Back the crater is closed to visitors, miscellaneous trails along the southern component of the park, such as the Napau Trail, carry out panoramic views of the beautiful, remote Pu`u `O`o crater.

Meeting Pele


Thomas Jaggar opened the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1912. He was the observatory's director till 1940. Credit: USGS

Hawaiians think the impetuous Kilauea is embodied through the goddess Pele, a fiery lady with a hot temper. When she gets angry, destruction plagues the land in the type of lava flows, earthquakes and the release of noxious volcano smog, dubbed vog.

Kilauea’s repeated eruptions and displays that power save the observatory geologists (which included me for the summer) very busy. Ns had countless run-ins v danger and learned firsthand just how an effective the goddess can be. In ~ 24 hrs of landing on the large Island, I got my first encounter with Pele. Energetic lava flows were threatening the city of Kalapana, which had last to be inundated v lava during the 1990s. As a result, Tim Orr, mine boss and the observatory’s head work geologist because that Kilauea, had actually to traction weekend duty, and also I tagged along.

Our task was to map the expansion of the lava flow and see just just how close it to be to a small road the cuts with a residential neighborhood in Kalapana. Making use of a gps device, we followed the sinuous spare of the lava. Walking next to a slow, barely moving circulation of lava might seem simple, but it’s not. In ~ all. Our journey associated wading with thick brush, navigating about cracked, hot flows (and sometimes on top of flows as soon as other routes verified too precarious), and generally abusing my poor quads. We managed to walk end the lava since much that it had cooled, hardening into a dark crust. But the heat emanating indigenous the still-liquid, glowing red parts was staggering — new lava deserve to be as hot as 1,050 levels Celsius. And also the reality that us were extended head to toe in protective gear did not aid with the heat.


A bird's-eye view of the lava flow field that intimidated the city of Kalapana in June. Through the end of July, the whole road (shown here) was extended in lava. Credit: Zahra Hirji, USGS

Hiking around the flows, Tim discussed the difference between pahoehoe (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy) and also `a`a (pronounced ah-ah) flows, the 2 main varieties of basaltic lava on land. Both varieties of lava have the exact same chemical composition, but differ in viscosity and temperature. Pahoehoe flows are smooth or ropey layered lobes the lava, conversely, `a`a flows have actually a rougher, blocky texture and can look choose a rolling wave of lava. They also flow much much faster than pahoehoe flows. In one of Kilauea’s prior eruptions, for example, `a`a flows traveled 12 kilometers in much less than a day; it took pahoehoe flows about three months to cover the exact same distance.


Kilauea's lava flows with a road close to Kalapana on July 17. Credit: Jeanette Renee Bachland

During my an initial three mainly on the job, I saw these flow areas multiple times a week. The warm lava field became my 2nd office, and also I got to know the layout of the place relatively well. In enhancement to the lava, i encountered methane bursts. When lava ignites vegetation, methane builds up. These methane bubbles randomly burst with a resounding pop. I likewise had my fair share the run-ins through trees and also plants suddenly lighting ~ above fire, tree falling down and lots the smoke. Every time I emerged from a burn “kipuka,” the Hawaiian term because that an island the vegetation surrounding by lava, i was extended in sweat and also black scratches from to brush up versus burning, ashy vegetation.


Left: Kilauea study geologist Matt Patrick bring away a lava sample if wearing full-body protective gear. Below: Kilauea geology technician Kelly Wooten transforms a webcam camera map at Halema`uma`u crater. Credit: Zahra Hirji, USGS

My last 2 weeks ~ above the job during the finish of July were completely different. With tiny warning, a new, larger, faster surge of lava erupted indigenous Kilauea. On July 17, lava ultimately hit the road I had actually been monitoring all summer. Once lava eats increase asphalt, thick, noxious black smoke clogs the air. Us wore gas masks once maneuvering roughly the melted road. Climate on July 26, Pele took her an initial victim, a house. This was the first time in a few years the Kilauea’s flows had actually consumed an lived in structure. Two more houses were nearly enveloped by the lava, but fortunately there to be no various other casualties. Due to the fact that then, Kilauea’s tempestuous circulation has calmed down.

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The author, Zahra Hirji, maps an active lava toe at the Kalapana flow fields. Credit: Ryan Ferguson, USGS

At the start of my time in ~ the volcano observatory, ns was a young geologist through eyes only for the Hollywood variation of volcanoes: the cigarette smoking craters and also the flowing lava. Three months living on Kilauea taught me to open up my eyes, and when ns did, it was difficult not come see proof of the volcano in every customs of the island.