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Kilauea Volcano – Will I get to see lava flowing?

Kilauea Volcano Eruption – Until 2018 I would have said probably yes. Now, probably not. But the truth is, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else. You need to know the history of what happened to get the whole picture.

Historically (meaning since 1778), most Hawaiian eruptions have lasted days or weeks, rarely months. Until 1983, only once—from 1969–1974 at Mauna Ulu—has an eruption outside the crater lasted more than a year. All that changed Jan. 3, 1983, when a fissure opened up in a place later called Pu‘u ‘O‘o, shifted to a vent called Kupaianaha from 1986 to 1992, then shifted back toward Pu‘u ‘O‘o until 2018. There was also a lava lake at the summit in Halema‘uma‘u Crater for the last decade of the eruption.

On April 30, 2018, however, the crater floor collapsed. The lava lake drained all at once, and the crater got deeper and deeper until the magma fell below the water table. The summit is around 4,000 feet in elevation, and the volcano had spent 35 years storing lava for distribution at this higher elevation. Something dramatic was happening.

Like a gopher tunneling underground, the magma worked its way rapidly to the east, outside the park and down the flanks of the mountain. When it got to a quiet residential development called Leilani Estates (elevation 700 feet), scientists sounded the alarm bells. Evacuations were ordered, and on May 3, 2018, fissure after fissure opened up among the houses. 

Twenty-two fissures eventually opened until Madame Pele settled in at Fissure 8. And from there came one of the most voluminous lava rivers in modern times. Imagine 40,000 dump trucks of lava—per hour—raging down a hellish river in your neighborhood. It was as if you had a full water tank located at a high elevation, then ran a hose from it down to a lower elevation. The fluid pressure was enormous, and lava was hotter than any that had previously been measured from Kilauea. The volcano had entered a new phase, and nobody had any idea what would happen or how long it would last.

The lava went due north until it crossed the main street, Leilani Avenue, then pushed its way northeast. It paralleled the ridge down the flank, and some of the lava spilled down the southern flank and made its way to the ocean, but Fissure 8 pushed on. Homes were destroyed. Businesses were destroyed. At one point the lava broke onto the land where a geothermal power plant existed. This was where the island got 25 percent of its power, by tapping the heat from a long ago eruption. But this was a geothermal meltdown, forcing the power plant to abandon the wells and flee.

The massive river made it to a tall cinder cone in Kapoho. This cone was the home of a small but 200-foot deep lake called Green Lake. It was created during an eruption 500 years ago and during the 2018 eruption the lava flows did an extraordinary thing. Scientists are normally pretty good about creating maps that show where lava is likely to flow by using slight depressions in the land. When the lava was approaching the cinder cone, they thought it would go a different direction. What they didn’t take into account was the temperature. This flow was the hottest lava that had ever come out of Kilauea. And hotter lava has a thinner viscosity. When it got to the area, it was so thin and of such massive volume, it simply followed the roadbed of Hwy 132. When it slithered around the north side of the cinder cone, it took gravitational advantage of a depression leading into the cone and poured into Green Lake, evaporating the entire body of water in 90 minutes.

After this, the lava flow turned back toward the ocean, widened and set its sights on Kapoho. There was nothing like Kapoho anywhere in Hawai‘i. Dozens and dozens of spring-fed, brackish pools and tide-pools, some volcanically heated, were strewn throughout the area known as the Kapoho Tide-pools. Many of the land-locked pools were incorporated into people’s front and back yards as swimming pools. The large pools adjacent to the ocean (called Wai‘opae Ponds) were on public property and contained some of the most fascinating snorkeling around. The largest pool snaked its way to the ocean, rising and falling each day with the tide. This created slight currents that were fun to ride. Having lived in Kapoho at one point, I spent many hours in the tide-pools and counted eight kinds of coral. Toward the back (west) a couple of pools were slightly heated by the volcano.

There were hundreds of private homes and vacation rentals available here, and I wept in anguish that terrible day when the broad lava flow literally erased Kapoho from the map, filling in the bay and tide-pools. For me, that was the day the eruption became personal. Lava flows had always been a sense of wonder and delight for me. I must admit I had always felt a certain detachment from the destructive aspect. But not on that June day. I had to struggle to remind myself of this painful but all-too-true reality: No one really owns any of the lands on the flanks of Kīlauea. We are merely tenants. And Madame Pele reserves the right to serve an eviction notice any time she wants. This is the way of things and has been for eons.

After fountaining and cascading for a little more than three months, lava from the fissure slowed until it seemed that Fissure 8 was spent. The lava river crusted over. More than 13 square miles of existing land had been covered with lava and 875 acres of new land created at the shoreline. Madame Pele, who had been on a massive spending spree in Lower Puna, appeared to have exhausted her savings, and it is currently unknown how long it will take to replenish the reserves. 

So, as you can see, we are in uncharted territory. The Kilauea volcano lava may return to the park in time for your visit. Or it may be another generation before we see the kinds of scenes we were accustomed to. And only time will reveal what Madame Pele might do.

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Mahalo.

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