Watching the Lava Boil and Froth

Watching the fantastic scene below me it was the famous lines from a play that came to me…

Halemaʻumaʻu Lava Lake
The lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu on the morning of April 27, 2015

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Witch’s scene from
Shakespeare’s MacBeth

This cauldron is roughly 500ft (200m) across and filled not with a witches brew, but a seething pool of lava. And while a line from Shakespeare might begin the description, it can not fully capture the reality… A churning pool of lava, mostly crusted over with thin sheets of dark material broken by brilliant red cracks. Along the edges bright fountains are powered by gasses escaping from deep below. In the night the brilliance of the lava lake was startling, illuminating the plumes of gasses and the low clouds over Kilauea Caldera.

To see this cauldron I had gotten up well before three in the morning for the nearly two hour drive across island. I traveled over Saddle Road and then up the volcano highway to Kilauea. Why the effort? The lava lake that has been present in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater was visible for the first time, at least from any publicly accessible place in the park. Normally the surface of this lava lake has been several hundred feet below the crater floor, hidden from direct view. An unprecedented surge of pressure in the Kilauea magma chamber has pushed the lake level to new heights, almost spilling out onto the floor of the crater.

Driving into the park revealed the first surprise. I was part of a little convoy of half a dozen vehicles, a bit unexpected at 4am. Arrival at the Jagger Museum parking lot I encountered an almost full parking lot, just a few spaces left in a very large lot. There were several hundred visitors already on the large terrace viewing area. A huge crowd, all here to see the lava.

Kilauea Deformation
Deformation graph showing inflation of summit caldera at Kilauea in late April, 2015.

Amazed at the crowds already present at the viewpoint I realized the practical impact… Expecting to be almost alone in the wee dawn hours I was planning to simply sit and photograph. Instead I faced a completely different situation. Problem one, no space to set up my gear.

Familiar with handling this sort of crowd I pulled from my playbook… I simply asked for space for my telescope, and offered first looks to anyone who offered me that space. The crowd at the wall parted like the Red Sea for Moses. In an instant I had a bunch of very friendly folks offering me room at the viewpoint wall.

It takes only a few moments to setup this little telescope.. Instead of installing the camera on the ‘scope I put the eyepiece in first to pay up my debt. The view was worth it, the magnification giving a spectacular view of the frothing lava. I believe those who had made space for me were more than happy with the outcome of the deal.

I had brought my little TeleVue 76mm, one of the smallest telescopes I own, but one of the best, the optics in this ‘scope are exquisite. Combined with a good eyepiece the telescope offered a beautiful 24x view of the action about a mile away. This is two to four times the magnification offered by the binoculars the better prepared visitors around me had available to them. The immediate response from most viewers was a emphatic “Wow” and a big smile.

A father and son obviously enjoying the view at the caldera
A father and son obviously enjoying the view at the caldera

After satisfying the immediate crowd around me I had a chance to install my camera into the telescope. A handful of photos and a few minutes of video were captured. I would repeat this periodically through the morning as the light changed and the activity in the crater shifted.

Full dark makes for an impressively bright pattern of lava, but submerges the surrounding rock in inky blackness. As the dawn progresses the lava fades a bit and the surroundings are revealed by the increasing light. The character of the photographs changes with the light.

After a few minutes with my own camera on the telescope I again re-installed the eyepiece. But this time I showed folks how to take afocal photographs with their phone cameras. I again became the center of attention, a crowd of folks patiently waiting with phones in hand. This was just fun.

The latest generation of camera phones are really quite good at this, properly exposing the photo with a minimum of fuss. The results were equally satisfying, people were able to take photos of a lava fountain that was not a little dot of orange on the screen.

I was able to accommodate a number of other Canon DSLR’s at the telescope, allowing them to use my adapter and shoot at prime focus. The offer to use a what is essentially 480mm telephoto lens created instant friends and big smiles. It was even more fun to teach folks how to use features in their cameras like live view and exposure compensation to get that perfect photo.

Even in this large crowd it surprised me how many people I knew. Joe Hannon found me and said hi. Baron was there taking his own photos and livecasting the view. I missed Dan Birchall by mere minutes. Dan’s wife, Vivian let me know I had allowed her boss to get a view through the telescope. You can not go anywhere on this island and expect anonymity! There were others present worth meeting… A nice conversation with longtime lava photographer Bryan Lowry taught me a few things about the volcano.

As the sun rose the glow of the lava faded, so did the crowd, thinning to just a few folks. Still I watched and talked with people, resisting the need to leave myself. After arriving well before 5am it was past 9am when I finally packed up and left. Four solid hours of watching lava. With an hour drive in front of me it becomes obvious that I was a bit late for work. No matter… It was worth it.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

One thought on “Watching the Lava Boil and Froth”

  1. Nice article.Great video cool boulder release at 31 sec in. Did u time that? How large was the boulder?
    Get your geometry cap on eh?

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