Out to the Lava… Again

It was another hike out to see the lava. Not that I really need an excuse to make this hike. This time it was to take a friend along. I have worked with Olivier for several years, between the two of us we do much of the physical maintenance on the Keck adaptive optics systems. Shortly he will be departing the island for another opportunity. Before he leaves he wanted to cross off one more item from his bucket list, seeing the lava close up.

The ocean entry at Kupapaʻu
Unlike last time we found the ocean entry was going strong, lava pouring into the sea very near where we saw nothing in December. There were multiple small entries spread along hundreds of yards of sea cliffs. On the west end of a shallow bay, we could get a decent look from promontories on the east end, upwind of the acrid plumes. Right below us was one particularly good font of lava, in reach of a modest telephoto lens.

It was still completely dark, the light of the full moon masked by the clouds. The waves were lit by the crimson glow, occasionally surging against the cliffs and hiding the lava from view. The glow also illuminated the billowing clouds of steam rising above each rivulet of lava. The scene is surreal, something that is both unexpected and somewhat difficult to believe. This is something that is outside our usual daily experience.

An active pāhoehoe breakout at Kupapaʻu
After spending some time at the ocean entry we searched inland for a breakout we could approach more closely. A slight glow to the north indicated a possible breakout, but I had no idea if it was close or miles away. With hope we headed for the glow and got lucky. It was only about a quarter mile to the breakouts. Several lobes of lava were advancing over the slightly older flows. Dropping our gear well back from the active lava cameras were deployed. This is what we came to see and photograph, lava as close as the heat would let us get.

Olivier Martin
Olivier hiking over the lava at Kupapaʻu
For two hours we shot the breakouts. As usual, the flow would crust over, just to break out and advance again. The changing flow would provide ever different photo opportunities as the light of dawn slowly waxed. It was a cloudy day, small showers moving through, softening the dawn light and making the hot glow stand out all the more. The photos and video capture the scene, but do poor justice to the sound. The crackle of the cooling crust, raindrops hissing on the hot surface, low resounding cracks from deep in the rock under our feet.

With the day well begun we headed back to the ocean entry to shoot a few more frames in the early light. We sat on rock that was fairly warm under us, shooting the lava pouring into the waves. Relaxing a bit, digging a few bites to eat from the pack, we talked of cameras and lenses, of life on the island, a last bit of camaraderie with someone I might never meet again. We sat and just enjoyed this spectacle of raw nature. This was why we came, there is some risk in just being here, but the experience is worth it.

Getting to the Lava

Note: This post has been revised based on current conditions and access. You can see the revised post here.

Getting close to flowing lava is a great experience, but one that is fraught with risks. Sometimes the lava is relatively easy to access, near a road or developed trail. Most of the time it takes a serious hike across the old flows to get near, an arduous trip with no trail or map to guide you.

Kupapa'u Lava
An active pāhoehoe breakout at Kupapa’u

My most recent hike was my fifth trip out to the flowing lava, requiring my longest hike over the flows to date at just under three miles each way. OK, maybe I am not yet a veteran, but these trips have taught me a lesson or two. Going onto the lava is an inherently risky proposition and one must accept that risk. With a little knowledge and preparation the risks can be mitigated. Besides, the reward is spectacular!

You can take my word for it, or perhaps read the same information from someone who has been out far more than I. We will all tell much the same story.

Continue reading “Getting to the Lava”

Trek to the Lava

The lava has been entering the sea for over a month now. I have wanted to hike out, but life and other commitments have consistently intervened. With off-island guests, I made the offer to lead a hike out to the flowing lava. My sister-in-law Darcy was the only one that took me up on the offer, the prospect of a 2am wake-up and a two hour trek across rough ground too much for some. We left the others in bed.

Kupapa'u Lava
A active pāhoehoe breakout at Kupapa’u
This is the same plan I have used before, a two hour run across the island to Kalapana gets us to the edge of the flow field about 4am. This leaves another two hours to hike to the lava flows. We would need the time! It would take all of that two hours to make just 2.7miles. Two hours over the rough ground of older lava flows, avoiding pits, loose plates, large cracks and small hummocks that rose 10-20feet overhead. This was in pitch black conditions with no moonlight to help. It was alternating bright stars and clouds overhead, two brief showers left us dampened but comfortable in the warm tropical dawn.

Continue reading “Trek to the Lava”

A Bright Glow from Halema’uma’u

It caught everyone’s attention, suddenly the southern sky lit up, a bright glow coming from the direction of our volcano. This occurred about 21:45 last night, we were getting ready to put away the telescopes, ending a great evening at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center.

The red glow was unmistakeable, something was happening at Halemau’uma’u. We moved to where we could see the brightly lit plume over the volcano, conversation buzzing with questions, what is going on?

Our guess is that something, most likely a large rockfall, disturbed the lava lake at the bottom of Halema’uma’u crater. The lake, normally crusted over and dark, can be easily disturbed. If something happens to break up the crust, the glow of this very hot lava is surprisingly bright. Bright enough that we were surprised by the show from our vantage point about 30 miles away.

What happened? I will have to read the daily report later today and see if anything out of the ordinary is noted. A nice event, and a treat for the tourists still at the VIS near closing. The glow faded over the next 20-30 minutes. After closing the VIS and beginning my drive back down the mountain, it had faded enough to be barely visible again.

My Canon G11 is not normally a good after dark camera, but given the bright moonlight, and the brighter glow from the volcano, it did fairly well…

Update! Today’s volcano report indicates a series of large rockfalls occurred last night.

Halema'uma'u Glow
The plume at Halema'uma'u lit up at night as seen from the Mauna Kea VIS, 15s exposure with a Canon G11