Skip to main content /TECH with /TECH

Hawaii volcano brings lava to the people

Lava lookers get accessible, close-up view of flows

Instead of the usual 4-mile trek, visitors now have an up close and personal view of the Kilauea volcano lava waiting for them at the edge.
Instead of the usual 4-mile trek, visitors now have an up close and personal view of the Kilauea volcano lava waiting for them at the edge.  

By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- Sparking. Spewing. Sizzling.

It's the best show on Hawaii's "Big Island." In fact, it's one of the most dazzling spectacles on any island in the world this summer.

The Kilauea volcano has been erupting almost non-stop since 1983. Yet for the past several weeks, it's been casting a hypnotic spell over huge numbers of tourists and locals alike.

And talk about a hot date! How does 2100 degrees Fahrenheit grab you?

Cooing honeymoon couples and multi-generation families have been trekking to the end of the Chain of Craters Road to see, hear and smell Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Kilauea means "spewing" or "much spreading" in Hawaiian.

Photo gallery: Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano 
Where does the lava come from? Check out the anatomy of a volcano. 

"When you're at the lava flow, you forget you're a geologist," said Arnold Okamura, a scientist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. "You are mesmerized by the amount of energy and the changing formations. You can feel the heat, smell the sulfur; it's quite an experience," he said.

While there's nothing unusual science-wise about Kilauea's activity this summer, the direction of the lava flow has, quite literally, brought the lava to the people. Right now, visitors only have to walk a short distance to see the flows. In past years, there may have been a grueling trek of up to 4 miles in and then 4 miles back to get a firsthand look at the steamy, oozing flow.

'A tailgate party with the lava'

There's an almost festive atmosphere at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, some days from dawn until well past sunset, says Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ranger Mardie Lane. "It's almost like a tailgate party with the lava," she said.

But don't try roasting marshmallows over these fires. The sulfur fumes produce a nasty aftertaste. And cooking or any sort of defacement is considered disrespectful of this natural wonder.

Lava flows into the ocean, producing scalding water and dangerous steam.
Lava flows into the ocean, producing scalding water and dangerous steam.  

Flights into Hilo airport are sold out, and items crucial for safe viewing of the volcano, from flashlights and sunscreen, to sturdy boots, are said to be flying off local store shelves.

"If there ever was a time or place for sensible shoes, this is it," said Lane.

On some days, more than 4,000 people listen to the sizzle and watch the steam rise as lava enters the ocean. That's perhaps the most spectacular aspect of this explosive display.

Just as some people wait until their state lottery reaches $100 million dollars before they'll buy a ticket, some residents wait for the lava to hit the sea before heading out to the park for a peek.

"Ocean entry is just something people look forward to," said Lane. "They say, if that happens, I'm there!"

The summer has seen far more residents of the state's other islands making the trip to Kilauea. A $10 pass is good for a week; a $20 pass is good for this and several other national parks in Hawaii.

Keeping respect for Mother Nature

As dazzling as this show is, rangers like Lane make it clear that there are both vivid and hidden dangers on and around the volcano. The islands' earliest residents paid attention to its power, when it was believed Kilauea was home to the volcano goddess Pele. The local population believed that when their high chiefs insulted or failed to pay proper tribute to Pele, she responded angrily, either flooding their homes with lava or stamping her foot to cause an earthquake.

All day and night, crowds -- as many as 4,000 sometimes -- gather to walk among the 2100 degree lava.
All day and night, crowds -- as many as 4,000 sometimes -- gather to walk among the 2100 degree lava.  

While there may no longer be fear of a goddess, a hearty dose of respect for Mother Nature can still be lifesaving. The U.S. Geological Survey warns of a lot of weapons in Kilauea's arsenal: hot lava, steam blasts that toss hefty rocks about, acid fumes, and scalding waves once the lava hits the ocean water.

Walking onto a newly formed bit of land, known as a bench, has claimed more lives than any other dangers from the volcano. That, says geologist Okamura, is because the pieces of new land can be deceiving. The ocean water is so deep (about 12,000 feet) that these benches -- or temporary platforms -- can simply slide away.

And there are often earthquakes. The region has the same seismic hazard rating as northern and southern California.

An other-worldly spectacle

Most dangers on Kilauea are not life threatening, but can be irritating, from dehydration to heat stroke, sunburn, sunstroke, sprains, abrasions, and yes, getting lost in the dark.

When fire hits water, it creates some potent gases. When molten rock and seawater combine, heat from the lava breaks apart the salt in the sea water, which then reacts with the water to form hydrochloric acid, the acid that's in our stomachs. And when sulfur and fluorine gases mix with water, sulfuric acid is created. Inhaling those gases can cause eye and skin irritations and make breathing difficult for some.

All that bubbling and steaming can be a bit scary for young children.

"Since they've been infants, kids are always told, 'hot-bad!' And here mom and dad are dragging them onto a bubbling lava field. It's confusing," said Lane.

She and her colleagues have been working long hours to keep visitors of all ages out of harm's way, and encourage them to just soak in the almost "other-worldly" spectacle.

Lava lovers often keep remnants of their experience for a few days after their visit. Wind and heat leaves many with a sun and wind burn. But mostly, it's a lava-inspired glow from spending a few hours on some inspiring -- and very hot -- property.


Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


Back to the top