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Kilauea’s Eruption Just Keeps Getting More Fantastic!

Aloha, I’m Donnie MacGowan–I live in the County of Hawaii, on the Island of Hawaii in the State of Hawaii…I just spent the last few days camped out at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park watching Kilauea Volcano erupt and I wanted to share some of the footage I shot.

When I was a college student back in the mid 1970’s, I took a geology class just for kicks. One morning the professor burst in late and said “You guys have GOT to see this film—my friend in Hawaii just sent it to me…this is happening right now!” He loaded up the projector and showed us this film of a brand new eruption on Mauna Ulu in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park–that film changed my life. I declared myself a Geosciences major on the spot and even went on to earn a PhD. in Geochemistry. Although ultimately I did not pursue Volcanology as a discipline, my love affair with volcanoes as an avocation, and my spiritual connection to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, has never waned.

Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park right now are being treated to a rare event. Kilauea Volcano is erupting in two places simultaneously! Up in the summit caldera, in Hale ma’uma’u Crater, a vent exploded open last March that has continued to thrill visitors with its billowing steam cloud and night-time glow. If this were the only volcano you were ever going to see, this would plenty spectacular. Current eruption activity updates are available from the National Park at 808.985.6000.

But hold on! The real action is down at the coast where lava from the East Rift Zone has broken out of lava tubes, flows across the open ground and into the sea. From the air, one can see the spectacular glow of a small lava lake in Pu’u O’o crater and from several breakouts along the 2007 Thanksgiving Eve Breakout tube system above the pali and near the top of Royal Gardens subdivision. Lava is currently flowing down the pali and entering the ocean at the Waikupanaha ocean entry where there are spectacular littoral explosions. Although this activity is usually quite vigorous, including a 10-15-m-high lava fountains, it can be sporadic on a day-to day basis.

Over the years, lava has mostly entered the ocean within the National Park boundaries. Park policy has been to allow tourists to approach flowing lava as closely as the visitor himself deemed safe. Surprisingly, a relatively small percentage of visitors were killed or maimed in this process and unparallel access to one of the great wonders of the world, the spectacle of the Earth remaking herself through volcanic eruption, was available on a very intimate basis to anyone who came to Hawaii. Every six or so years, for a period of several months, eruption flows go outside the park boundaries, as it is doing now.

The County of Hawaii, whose Civil Defense Department is responsible for visitor safety in these cases, is not so liberal in granting access to the lava flow. The county maintains a viewing area several hundred meters back from the actual flow and ocean entry areas and visitors are not allowed any closer. As of this writing, to see the lava flow one must find the County of Hawaii volcano viewing area. From the Hawaii Belt Road at Kea’au, proceed south on Highway 130 through Pahoa and toward the now-buried town of Kalapana. At the 20 mile marker the road splits; the right branch (helpfully marked “end of road”) leads to a dirt-and-lava road a couple miles long at the end of which is the parking area for the County of Hawaii volcano viewing area. One really cannot miss the way during daylight hours, as the enormous explosion plume is clearly visible from miles away. The viewing area is open from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night; no cars are allowed in after 8 p.m. Lava viewing and road information is available from the County of Hawaii at 808.961.8093.

A carnival atmosphere hovers over the parking lot, where several vendors hawk jewelry, t-shirts, drinks and snacks…port-a-potties are also available. The trail leading to the viewing area is largely flat but traverses a broken lava field. It is well marked with reflectors and reflective paint strips along the surface and is just a 15 to 20 minute stroll. The quality of viewing varies from week to week as the lava stream shifts nearer or farther from the viewing area, but seeing the orange glow of flowing lava, or the fiery red explosions, is one of the most amazing experiences a person can have, no matter how far from the flow one is.

It is hard to overstate the power, mystery and magic of this eruption, but upon occasion, transient local atmospheric phenomena such as waterspouts and lightning add even more spice to this already awe-inspiring spectacle. Other wonders abound here, too, if you look closely. The hardened lava over which you are walking contains numerous casts of logs, trees, coconuts and pandanas fruit. Lava viewing is best done at dusk and later, however, parking spaces fill up quickly on nice afternoons. I usually plan to arrive at the parking lot at about 3:30 or four then walk into the viewing area, spending the hours until dark reading, having a picnic and chatting with visitors who have come from all over the world to see this wonder. You should wear sturdy, close-toed walking shoes and a hat to shed rain and sun. The lava surface is sharp, so I recommend long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and a stout walking stick as well. Bring at least 2 liters of drinking water, snacks and perhaps a couple Band-Aids; definitely bring sun block. Because you are right on the ocean, short rain squalls should be expected; an umbrella and rain coat or poncho is suggested, as well as protective covering for camera gear.

If the wind shifts the explosion plume in your direction, discretion is the better part of valor; you should evacuate immediately. Those fume clouds are toxic, containing various gaseous sulphur compounds including sulphuric acid, as well as hydrochloric acid and fine particulate material. On this same topic, electronic and camera gear, as well as glasses, binoculars and other optics, will be exposed to a certain amount of these toxic gases and you should wipe them down thoroughly after your trip. Most people plan to stay on after dark and so you should bring a flashlight for each person in your group; be sure to check the batteries and bulb before you leave on the trip. Remember that food and gas are not always available after dark outside the immediate Hilo or Kailua Kona areas, so be sure to fill up your gas tank BEFORE you park, and to bring plenty to eat and drink along with you.

Viewing the lava is one of the most amazing, wondrous, moving experiences you can have, anywhere on earth. People stand in awe, openly weeping at the site of Mother Earth going through her rebirth. Each fiery explosion is met with a loud chorus of “OOOOOHS!” and “AHHHHHHS!” in a display that will make every subsequent Fourth of July fireworks spectacular seem pale by comparison. If you are coming to Hawaii, you must not miss this once-of-a-lifetime show…if you have never thought of Hawaii as a potential vacation spot, you should consider it simply for this rare, unique and entirely awe-inspiring, mystical, wondrous opportunity.

I’m Donald B. MacGowan–thank you for spending a little time with me and my volcano…aloha e a hui hou.

For more information on travel to Hawaii in general and visiting the Big Island in particular, visit and here.

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