By Donnie MacGowan
Lava continues to to gush unabated from Kilauea Volcano on the big Island of Hawaii through the former village of Kalapana into the Pacific Ocean, yielding one of the volcano’s best spectacles of the last ten years. That’s the good news.
The bad news is you cannot see any of it from the County of Hawaii Lava Viewing Area. This is not the County’s fault; the entire area is not only private property, but also highly unstable and ferociously dangerous.
For obvious reasons, trespassing on private property is not an option, here. Further, Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi has promised the residents whose homes are in danger of being engulfed that he will not turn their personal tragedy into a public spectacle by opening up the area to casual tourism.
My PhD is in geology and I have spent years wandering the lava flows here and on other volcanoes around the world; I find that I really cannot recommend that folks casually stroll about this area without a basic understanding of some of the hazards. The extreme danger results from several factors. The active lava flow, especially in the vicinity of the County of Hawaii Lava Viewing Area where it is most accessible, is currently surrounded by an enormous area (perhaps 20 or more square miles) of what is called “dim lava”. This is lava that, mostly still liquid and incredibly hot, has more or less “ponded”, or virtually stopped moving, and has developed about a foot or so crust on top of the still liquid lava. As such it appears deceptively safe to walk on but actually it is exceptionally dangerous to cross. Nobody would be foolish enough to walk on lava that is obviously still liquid, but many are tempted to cross the solid-appearing dim lava. This is extremely, shall we say, stupid; dim lava is highly unstable, subject to rapid changes bringing great masses of liquid rock to the surface and is very, very dangerous. During daylight hours it is difficult to tell the dim lava from flows that have been solid and cold for years, but one misstep can take you through a thin spot in the crust and into 2000 degree liquid. The glow from the liquid rock can frequently be seen through cracks in the surface at night, giving you warning that you are on extremely dangerous ground. Although at times people seem to navigate dim lava safely, it would not be wise for me to advise anyone to venture out onto it.
Additionally, lava is much more viscous than water and flows a bit differently…sometimes, not all the liquid lava is below you. When scouring a route past the dim lava last week, we were wandering between two lava “hillocks” on long-cooled rock, when we noticed that, ten feet above our heads, was the tell-tale glow of dim lava that had infiltrated the hillocks and could, at any moment, break out and spread over the ground we were walking on. A very, very dangerous situation and one we immediately remedied by beating a hasty, safe retreat. No one wins an argument with flowing lava.
The second prevalent hazard are the forest fires burning where the lava flows through jungle, especially surrounding the lava ocean entries, the most spectacular part of the flow and the place most people are trying to get to. The danger from the fires is obvious, but what is not obvious is the fact that methane gas, extremely explosive, accumulates ahead of the flow under the ground surface in forested areas. Every so often (and without warning), there will be a large methane explosion (in and of itself highly dangerous) that can blow enormous chunks of fiery-red hot liquid lava and solid rock thousands of feet.
Another hazard is the littoral explosions. Littoral explosions occur when hot, liquid lava meets the cold ocean water, mostly where lava tubes empty under the ocean. Littoral explosions can hurl hot solid and molten liquid material hundreds of meters and are best given about half kilometer leeway. These hazardous explosions were once common at the Waikupanaha Lava Viewing Area, but there are currently no explosions occurring in the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area. Just because littoral explosions are not occurring today, however, does not mean they could not start again instantly.
Finally, although not common, it is worth bearing in mind that the extremes of temperature of the mixing air, rock and water, the amount of particulate matter and vapor injected into the atmosphere and other weirdly perturbed variables around the ocean entries can cause bizarre weather phenomena, such as waterspouts and highly localized lightning.
Your best bet is to heed the advice of the County of Hawaii Public Safety professionals: do not cross private property, stay off of the dim lava and stay away from where the lava streams cut through burning jungle. You put your life, and those of any foolish enough to assist you when you get in trouble, at extreme risk.
So…is it possible to see the lava flow without paying a boat captain or pilot to take you safely to the shores’ edge? In a word, yes. One can hike along the shoreline from the end of the road at Kalapana (by the new Kaimu Beach), but is is extremely difficult and very, very dangerous. A complete discussion of hiking to see the lava can be found here and here. The route follows the coast on razor sharp basalt, rough, broken and unforgiving, and there is no trail. The way is at least 5 miles long in each direction of hard, hard hiking and includes about a mile of rank bush-whacking through very, very dense jungle that is not only easy to get lost in, but is on fire in some places.
It is frequently quite rainy and, since the best viewing is at dawn or dusk, you are likely thinking about going at least one way in the dark. Traveling this risky route in the dark and/or rain greatly magnifies the dangers. Much of the way is jammed in a couple feet between a 60 foot cliff with unforgiving open ocean underneath and the dense jungle pressing you on the other side. When it is dark or misty or raining, or when you are tired or not paying close enough attention, this is very hazardous.
Hard and dangerous.
Honestly, I do not recommend you go at all. Night after night of hiking in to see the lava, of all the people who set off from Kalapana around when we did, and the many, many we met returning, most turned around after only 3 or so miles of hard hiking over the lava. Some turned around when they got hemmed in by the dim lava, not knowing to cut through the jungle to the shore; more got lost and wandered for hours in the jungle before turning around. Many had been told by local residents that the walk was “only 20 minutes or so” and so set off in sandals, or with children, without water or rain gear. Be aware, the hike is, at minimum, two difficult hours in duration each way (due to the difficulty of the terrain), there is no marked trail or path and the rock is like razors if you slip on it.
Do not even attempt to hike along the shore to the flows unless you are in extremely good physical shape, confident of both your route-finding and cross country hiking abilities, you are equipped for rain, cuts and bruises, have plenty of water to drink and food.
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