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A Trip To Kilauea or The Volcanic Smog Gets In Your Eyes

In National Geographic’s Finding The Next Earth, an astronomer enters the Gemini Observatory at Mauna Kea and begins to weep tears of joy on seeing a brand new space telescope. There’s no crying in science, but I get it. The stuff we see and achieve is often too damned beautiful not to be overwhelmed with emotion. It’s the same way I felt when I first laid eyes on the Halema’uma’u summit crater inside the Kilauea caldera on the big island of Hawaii a few weeks ago. It’s all black rock and toxic quantities of sulfur dioxide to you, but for us geologists who love our planet, alighting upon one of the world’s most famous active volcanoes is a life goal and akin to a religious experience. New crust forms right beneath our feet, the material having traveled miles up from the mantle, pushing, transforming, being transformed, rising into the atmosphere and, in the process, causing goosebumps of scientific elation. There is nothing more right and perfect than this moment.

Until your husband comes along and says, “Oh geez, are you crying?!”

Halema’uma’u crater inside the Kilauea calderaOur day started on the southern flanks of Mauna Loa with a drive from Oceanview to Southpoint or Ka Lae, the southermost point in the 50 United States, situated at 18.91°N 155.68°W. Well below the Tropic of Cancer, but a stark reminder that it’s been a long time since I’ve been in the southern latitudes which needs correcting soon.

DSC02983 Where Mauna Loa Meets The SeaWe then drove past many large windmills, Hawaiian grass-fed beef cattle and zebras (don’t ask) towards Hilo. After puttering around the town of Volcano (and noticing the Google Streetview car parked at a pub there) we made our way over to the national park. The rest of this post describes the stops we made on Kilauea along with pictures, some pithy remarks and tips should you choose to visit there some time.

The Google Streetview Rig In Volcano, HIThe entrance to Volcanoes National Park sits right between Mauna Loa and Kilauea [MAP]. At Kilauea, the park is designed to contain the main summit caldera in which sits the Halema’uma’u crater (seen above) and Puʻu ʻŌʻō (or, more simply, Puu Oo), a cinder cone in the eastern rift zone of Kilauea. Puu Oo has been erupting and jettisoning lava into the sea continuously since the beginning of 1983. You can look at that either as 4/5th of the time I’ve been alive or as 7/1000000000th the age of the earth. A sense of temporal scale is handy in situations like this.

Active geology means active road construction and maintenance (your tax dollars at awesome work) so getting from point to point often requires sitting in “traffic” and staring at … steam vents that pop up where they feel like it.

Steam Vents Halema’uma’u crater inside the Kilauea caldera

Or parking the car and hiking to your next point of interest. The first time we stopped was at some vents into which people were throwing coins as offerings to Pele or through that unexplainable human desire to throw coins into places we cannot reach. D and I walked over to another steam vent and discussed the expelled gases – water vapor, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide. I explained that they are released during magma depressurization as it rises towards the surface and that I could also smell methane and hydrochloric acid in the mix. This elicited a dirty look from a young lady in flouncy skirts whose prayer while facing the vent in question had been disrupted by me and my scientific mambling. I should have told her to thank me for keeping her face from peeling off in an hour or so.

On to the volcanoes themselves. We drove west on Crater Rim Drive from the visitor center to see the Halema’uma’u crater from two locations: first at where I had my aforementioned epiphany and second from behind the Jaggar Museum. I highly recommend the short hike from the first lookout point to the museum as you get better and better vantage points from which to see Mauna Loa and peer into the Halema’uma’u fuming vent, and to walk by the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory. Also, inside the museum you see artistic depictions of Goddess Pele, who makes her residence at Kilauea. I like this one in particular because it reminds me of myself and most women during the course of any given month. Don’t piss off Pele, man, or she will cut you.

Sybil, I Mean PeleCrater Rim Drive is closed beyond this point all the way to where it meets Chain Of Craters Road, which takes you down to the sea. There are signs along the side of the road that tell you to keep your windows rolled up and to close your AC vents to keep from breathing the mix of toxic gases. Ever so often, we’d roll down the windows to take pictures and D would say, “Do you smell that? Smells like masala!” In truth, he first said, “Smells like curry!” and I had to correct him that what the west refers to as curry is actually what we call masala. Anyway, toxic volcanic gases smell like masala. Great. Apparently Pele will cut you … and eat your heart with macadamia nuts and a nice plum wine.

Now, onto giant, gorgeous lava tube beneath giant, gorgeous fern forest! We drove back east on Crater Rim Drive past the Visitors Center to an overlook from which you can see Kīlauea Iki, a beautiful pit crater just to the east of the Kīlauea summit.

volcano_small_pano_1Check out the fractures on the rim, probably caused by deflation after eruption (Who has two thumbs and is not a volcanologist? Me. So, please feel free to clarify, theorize, etc. in the comments below.)

DSC03022From there, D and I walked down to the Thurston Lava Tube. I have never seen taller and more lush fern forests in my entire life, truly a botanist’s paradise. This would be as good a time as any to note the abundance of microclimates on the Big Island of Hawaii and how geology, topography and climate affect the evolution of any given flora and fauna. Of course, it’s hard for me to tell what is native to Hawaii and what came over when people increasingly migrated over from the American mainland and other countries, but these are isolated islands and natural life is markedly different or becomes different here. Places like this help us see more readily that the study of geology is absolutely crucial to understanding evolution. That it doesn’t occur in a vacuum but as response to changing environmental conditions.

DSC03043 DSC03029The lava tube itself was pretty cool. Hard to imagine a river of lava flowing through this tunnel. Also mindblowing are the joints in the floor and ceiling of the tube through which tree roots propagate downwards into the tunnel. Which reminded me that I am not a fan of enclosed spaces (“Stop breathing my air!”) and that lava tubes have a tendency to collapse. And we were back out into the open forest, with the green plants and the oxygen. The sweet, sweet oxygen. Note to self: Blog at some point about the wonderful undergraduate geomorphology field trip to a karst system where you and acute claustrophobia were first acquainted.

DSC03031DSC03034Another thing I love about Hawaii is that plants grow anywhere and everywhere here. On rocks, on sand, on wood, on houses, on top of other plants, on you if you stand still long enough.

DSC03045 DSC03048From here, we hopped onto the Chain Of Craters road to the sea, with some fun stops along the way.

Tree branch reaches out from a 1970s eruption:
DSC03060Pahoehoe, or ropy lava, or natural sculpture:
DSC03062Pahoehoe on the left, aa on the right, with approximately 6-foot-tall husband for scale:
DSC03064Chain Of Craters Road cuts across lava flows from the 1960s and 70s:
IMG_1067A sea of lava:
DSC03078USGS elevation marker with elevation conveniently missing:
DSC03079Where land meets sea:
DSC03083From the summit of Kilauea to the sea is a 4000-foot drop across ~15 miles of switchbacks. We drove all the way to where the Chain Of Craters Road stops, a mile or so before the road is abruptly cut off by a series of flows that buried the road and the nearby Royal Gardens Subdivision back in 1987. From here, we hiked the rest of the way to the flow and tooled around on it.

Where The Sidewalk Ends, I Ain’t Kidding edition:
DSC03092View from where the Royal Gardens subdivision began:
DSC03102D running away from the lava flow OF DOOM:
DSC03105GeoBadgers represent! Me standing on two adjacent pahoehoe flows:
DSC03108The Hölei Sea Arch:
DSC03111And then, just like that, it was sunset and when the park closes. Many who were spending the night to catch lava flow into the sea began their evening picnics while we made our way out of the park.

Now, I can cross off another thing I wanted to do before kicking the bucket. Here is the complete set of pictures from this amazing trip; feel free to use it as a teaching set as it contains pictures of outcrops with scale. Here is the latest NPS Volcanoes National Park trip planner, full of maps, pictures and good advice. Please visit the regularly-updated website for area closure and other warnings.

Volcanic smog makes for beautiful sunsets.

DSC03117

1 comment… add one

  • garry hayes December 7, 2011, 2:19 AM

    Delightful exploration of the Big Island! Your pictures and text sparked so many memories of my own trip there. Did you get a chance to see the green sand beach near South Point?

    Keep up the great work!

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