The Hottest Ticket In Town: Big Island Lava Puts On A Show

Aug 18, 2016

Credit Molly Solomon

Lava from Kīlauea has been erupting from the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō vent since 1983. Recently the flow reached the ocean, for the first time in three years. Thousands of visitors and residents have been flocking to Kalapana to see it for themselves.

Red hot lava is a sight to see. But if you listen closely, you can also hear it. The crackle and pops sound like a fried egg sizzling in a pan.

Tina Neal is the scientist in charge at the USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory.
Credit Molly Solomon

"The lava flow is still quite hot," said Tina Neal, as she stood on top of a portion that had cooled just four days ago. "I can feel the heat radiating behind me. And just about 10 or 15 meters in that direction, I still see glow in the cracks."

Neal moved to Hawai‘i from Alaska a couple years ago and was excited to see her first ocean-entry lava flow since she became the scientist in charge at Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory.

"I remember in 1986 when lava first hit the ocean and what a magical experience that was to just watch that phenomenon of seeing 2,000 degree molten rock meeting cold ocean," she said. "So to be back here and see this again is very meaningful personally. Just as a human being, seeing that interaction of powers in nature is really powerful." 

Visitors watch as a finger of new lava breaks out on the 61-G active lava flow.
Credit USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory

Further out, Neal leads a group of us to the edge of the sea cliffs. That’s where we see crashing waves lick the front edge of the active flow. "At night it would be a very dramatic sight as well," said Neal. "You'd see not only the incandescent streams, but the glow reflected off of those clouds of the tremendous orangey red color."

Credit Molly Solomon

That sight is attracting as many as 3,000 visitors to the edge of the eruption on a busy night.

"Active lava is really one of those bucket list type of things," said Jessica Ferracane, the public affairs specialist for Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. "People want to see lava flows and with the national park, part of our mission is to provide safe access to active vulcanism. With this current eruption, we're able to do that."

New lava can be unpredictable and park rangers and county officials are urging visitors to use caution. HVO spokeswoman and geologist Janet Babb says the newly formed land, called lava deltas, are not as sturdy as they appear.

A sign on the edge of the sea cliff at Kamokuna warning visitors to keep a safe distance.
Credit Molly Solomon

"Lava deltas are deceptively stable looking. You see this lava out there and you think, gosh that's the place I need to be to see lava up close and personal," said Babb. "But that veneer of lava that you see on the lava delta is hiding a foundation of rubble."

Credit Molly Solomon

Babb says the deltas can collapse without warning. That’s already happened at least once since this recent flow began.

The trek, about four miles out, can be entered from the Kalapana side or through the national park. Boat tours and helicopters also offer views for those who don’t want to make the trip by foot. A rental bike station at the Kalapana entrance has also been a popular option. That’s how David and Charissa Yonan got there. The Kea‘au residents live about 20 minutes away but before today, had never seen lava entering the ocean. They biked out in the early morning to catch the sun rising over the cliffs.

Keaau residents Charissa Yonan, David Yonan, and Teresa Coleman rented bicycles to watch the sunrise as the fresh lava entered the ocean.
Credit Molly Solomon

"It's just quite an experience. There's no place in the world you could see that," said Charissa Yonan. "It's land forming before your eyes. This is Madame Pele's country, so respect."

Since the eruption began in 1983, lava at Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō has added about 500 acres of new land to the Big Island.