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”

End of an Island Legend

Jack Thompson’s house has become something of an island legend. When the rest of the development burned beneath the lava his house was spared. For three decades the lava has repeatedly run past the house. East and west there was nothing but lava fields, around the house lush Puna jungle created an island amongst the devastation.

Jack’s luck has finally run out, madame Pele claiming the last house in the Royal Gardens subdivision.

You can get the whole story, along with a set of photos at Leigh’s Hawai’i Lava Daily blog. Leigh was there for the last hours, photographing the lava, and helping Jack remove a few last belongings when the time came to take the last helicopter out.

Jack Thompson's House and the Lava
A lava flow approaching Jack Thompson's House, photo by Leigh Hilbert, used with permission

1940 Mauna Loa Eruption Film

Vintage film of Mauna Loa eruption during 1940 by Harold T. Stearns, a USGS Hydrologist-Volcanologist.

An eruption of Mauna Loa is something everyone fears and hopes for. This enormous volcano will erupt again, almost certainly within our lifetimes, possibly even the next decade. The last eruption was in 1984, the mountain has been quiet for well over two decades now, an uncharacteristically long period of quiescence. When it does erupt this volcano is capable of emitting huge volumes of lava, that reach the sea quite quickly down the steep slopes A dangerous mountain to be wary of.

Damon posted this some time ago, definitely worth re-posting here.

Of Lava Flows and Lunar Eclipses

A good lunar eclipse high in the sky. This was something I have not seen for a while. I have seen several lunar eclipses over the last few years. But they always seemed to be low in the sky from Tucson, rising with the eclipse already in progress. Thus as the date of this eclipse approached I was planning to view it properly. The eclipse would be high in Hawaiian sky, transiting with the Moon in totality. Perfectly placed to view the entire eclipse under the most ideal conditions.

Eclipse Revelry
Everyone at the VIS was enjoying the night!
The timing was highly convenient as I was scheduled to be on the mountain in any case that evening to help prepare for an interferometer run that night. Simply pack the telescope in my vehicle and drive to Hale Pohaku at the beginning of the day so it is waiting with what I need that evening. The scope I chose was my 90mm APO, the focal length was appropriate to frame the Moon well on the Canon 20Da camera. This I mounted on the Losmandy G-11 mount quickly polar aligned with the polar scope and set to track at lunar rate. This particular setup had not been tested together and I thought it would work. I was pleasantly surprised when everything not only worked, but worked quite well.

There was quite the crowd gathered at the Mauna Kea VIS. No surprise, the VIS is the best place on the island to view anything astronomical. Above the clouds and tropical haze the side of Mauna Kea offers a clear view of pristine skies and several telescopes available for anyone to look through. What was surprising was the weather, while the skies are usually clear the VIS can be very cold, and if you add wind the conditions can be miserable. This was not the case! It was cool but not cold and there was no wind beyond a slight breeze.

Eclipse Observing
How to properly observe an eclipse, set the camera on automatic and sit back and enjoy!
We had a couple busloads of high school students, quite a few local folks who knew where to go for an eclipse and the usual group of tourists. The atmosphere was rather festive, a couple musical instruments had appeared and everyone enjoyed the night as the moon slid out of the light.

The proper way to watch the several hours of a lunar eclipse is in comfort. Thinking ahead I brought a lounge chair and setup properly where I could monitor the camera and see the frames on the LCD screen as they came in. This worked perfectly. I could view each frame as it was taken without getting up and adjust settings on the camera simply by reaching over. Between each frame just lay back and enjoy the view.

Well, maybe I am understating the amount of work, things were not that relaxed and the camera took a fair amount of tending. I could not get the camera to autoexpose well with a single bright object in an otherwise black frame. The camera insisted on overexposing the Moon badly, even with automatic bracketing the situation did not work until I just put the camera in manual and adjusted the exposure regularly. The scope did not track perfectly and I did need to adjust the position a few times each hour. But the setup and tending were worth it as the resulting pictures are quite satisfying.

Lava flow from the MKVIS
Lava flowing from the July 21 vent of Kilauea as seen from the Mauna Kea VIS about 30 miles away, taken with the TV-76
This eclipse was darker than any I have seen lately, the Moon dimly seen high in the sky, my camera exposures running to 30 seconds to get a decent image. Once the view of totality had worn off it’s novelty the other telescopes began taking advantage of the truly dark conditions to show deep sky wonders to the crowd. The scopes jumped from Galaxy to globular clusters with the view being fully as good as a moonless night. It seemed of to be looking at M31 and other deep sky objects with the unaided eye on a night of a full moon.

As the eclipse wound down word of another spectacle made its way to me, the glow of something odd seen to the south. This got me out of my comfortable chair to go and see. Surprisingly the usual solid clouds on the east side of the island had parted and the brilliant golden glow of fluid lava was to be seen! There was some confusion as to what it was, some thought it was the lights of Hilo, but there was no confusion to those of us familiar with the view from Hale Pohaku.

The latest lava flow from a rift on the eastern flank of Kilauea was a river 100m wide and several miles long, even from our vantage point thirty miles away we could clearly see the stream. We could see the lava falls near the head of this river with binoculars as well as most of the course. The view of an eruption and an eclipse was and extraordinary reminder of the dynamism of the earth and universe around us.

Above is one of my photos from mid-totality taken with the 90mm APO and a Canon 20Da DSLR, note that several stars frame the moon. Check out a few more pictures of the eclipse from the visitor center by Simona Vaduvescu

Lunar Eclipse 28Aug2007
Total lunar eclipse, photo is a 8sec exposure with a Canon 20Da on a 90mm f/12 APO