Alot can happen in 30 years. Babies, careers, marriages – many milestones mark the passing of time between the bookends of three consecutive decades. But for a volcano like Kilauea, such an epoch just barely scratches the surface of history.
Scientists say that the fiery dome first erupted over two and a half millennia ago, when the shield volcano first start spilling lava onto the landscape. Flash forward through alternating periods of sporadic explosive activity and quiet, short-lived eruptions and you will better understand the vulcanologists’ excitement over a 30-year rift zone eruption.
New technology has allowed for better mapping of the history of the volcano’s flows, identifying thousands of individual layers of lava deposited various eruptions. Moreover, the steady stream of fresh lava flowing over the last 30 years has given scientists unprecedented opportunities to learn how volcanoes work.
Daily sampling expeditions have brought a bountiful supply of data to analyze. Strategically placed live viewing cams portray the volcano’s every move to a worldwide audience. Sensitive seismic, tectonic and gas monitoring equipment records every hiccup, every belch coming from the busy mountain.
As if the level of activity wasn’t enough, neighboring Mauna Loa has also given birth to its share of the square footage of the Island of Hawai‘i, affectionately known as the “Big Island.” For good reason: Famous for its status as the world’s tallest volcano, Mauna Loa rises nearly 30,000 feet from the sea floor and is about 60 miles wide at its base.
This massive shield volcano is also the perfect specimen of geographical diversity, with climates ranging from below freezing to arid desert, lush rain-forests to barren lava fields radiating with blazing heat waves.
Visitors to the park often find themselves piling on layers as a cold, misty breeze bites through a thin sweatshirt, only to peel off the extra clothing at lower-altitude lava viewing locations. Thus, it’s helpful to bring a few light layers to stay comfortable and protected from extreme climates and unpredictable weather changes.
A few other volcano-visiting tips include bringing lots of water, a hat and sunscreen, packing a flashlight for walking to night viewing areas, and being aware of any health issues that lava spectators may experience. Older adults, young children and those with allergies may be more sensitive to sulfur vapors emitted by steam vents, or to extremely hot or cold temperatures.
Witnessing the mystery of Mother Nature’s spectacular show, one would think that even such a spectacle could grow old over 30 years. Yet those who make the trek to view an active flow know that what they’re seeing will never look exactly the same, ever again. Even with all of science’s modern equipment and carefully calculated predictions, the three- decade flow could either continue for 100 years- or call it quits tomorrow.
For many, that’s the most exciting aspect of witnessing a live volcano first-hand: you just never know what might happen the day you visit. We can study, probe, document, and analyze conditions each day, but guessing the next chapter of the volcano’s extraordinary story will always remain a mystery.
By the Numbers…
Years since Kilauea first erupted
Years of Kilauea’s longest continuous eruption on its east rift zone
Height of lava fountains on Jan. 3, 1983 as magma shot into the air
Mile-long crack in the earth that opened up under the pressure of super-heated magma and gas
Acres of new land created since Kilauea’s present eruption began in 1983.
Homes destroyed in the wake of Kilauea’s flows
Minutes’ driving time from Hilo to Volcanoes National Park
Year Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park first established
Year Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO