Hawaii's Kilauea Lava Flow: 20 Years and Counting

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 3, 2003
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Hawaii's Kilauea volcano erupted 20 years ago today— and hasn't stopped issuing lava since. For much of that time, volcanologists Steve and Donna O'Meara have lived and worked on the mountain's flanks, witnessing the ongoing spectacle of the Kilauea eruption.

In a telephone interview from his mountainside home, Steve O'Meara recalled the awe of witnessing an earlier eruption on Kilauea in September 18, 1982. "There was a precursor eruption at the summit. That was the first eruption I was ever able to see. There was a curtain of fire with fountains 60 to 200 feet [18 to 61 meters] high just pumping away."

Kilauea may be the world's most active volcano. During the past century, it erupted more than 40 times. The volcano's current outburst, 20 years old and counting, shows no signs of abating.

Kilauea's present eruption began on January 3, 1983 in the rain forests of the mountain's east rift zone. The mountain split into a four-mile-long (1.2-meter-long) fissure that issued a towering wall of molten lava. Around the fissures main vent, cinder and lava massed into a 1,000-foot-high (305-meter-high) cone.

"Watching something grow over the years from a crack in the ground into a towering landmark was really phenomenal," Steve O'Meara said.

A Hot Romance

Steve O'Meara first met his wife Donna in Boston in 1986. The couple spent their second date hovering in a helicopter over Kilauea's lake of molten lava named Kupaianaha (a Hawaiian phrase that means "the mysterious one"). One year later, the pair landed in a helicopter next to a lava flow and were married.

In subsequent years, Kupaianaha overflowed, sending lava down the mountainside and through underground channels en route to the ocean. The lava flows destroyed 100 homes and buried the village of Kalapana. The destruction finally ended when the Kupaianaha lava lake dried up in 1992.

The O'Mearas were frequent visitors to Kilauea during this time, but said they soon wondered why they were merely guests. "We returned several times a year until we finally said, 'Let's just move to Kilauea,'" Steve O'Meara recalled. "So we've now been living on the Volcano for 10 years. It's more than just a scientific relationship with Kilauea."

Kilauea is perhaps the only volcano in the world with a drive-in caldera. The main depression of the volcanic crater measures over three kilometers by five kilometers (1.9 miles by 3.1 miles) in breadth and ranges up to 165 meters (541 feet) deep. It is a popular attraction with visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Away from the caldera, a flow of highly fluid lava issuing from a new vent formed on May 12, 2002, has offered visitors to the park an unusually close look at ongoing volcanic activity.

"For the longest time people had to hike about four miles (6.4 kilometers) across hardened lava to see the active flows," said Steve O'Meara. "So most people saw it from a distance. Now you can practically park your car and be a stones throw away. Its very vigorous, very active, and quite spectacular activity."

Kilauea's daily lava production averages between 300,000 to 600,000 square meters (358,000 to 717,000 square yards). Over the past two decades the eruption has added more than 540 acres (219 hectares) of new land to the big island of Hawaii's south shore.

Front Row Seats to a Primordial Stage

"There are few places on earth where humans can walk alongside a lava flow, hear it crackle and hiss, and actually see the creation of new land, see how the earth is formed," Steve O'Meara said.

As lava from the Kilaeua eruption flows down the mountain and reaches the sea, it creates a towering plume of steam above the coastline that is visible for miles.

"You are able to stand on the cliff and down below, as the night is getting darker, you can look into the sea and see the advancing lava flows explode like underwater lightning," said Steve O'Meara.

When conditions are favorable, visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can hike over hardened lava for an close-up views of active flows. The trek is not without its perils.

"With a volcano like Kilauea, the flows move gently, and the steam looks like angels. Its deceiving," said Donna O'Meara. "This volcano can still kill you. We lose people in the park every year."

New flows in 2002 threatened residents recently, but the imminent danger appears to have passed. "I think that for the moment, the immediate threat to residents is over," said Steve O'Meara. "But that doesn't mean it won't happen again."

Risks notwithstanding, the O'Mearas say they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"For me to live on the volcano is exciting every day, because we don't know what is going to happen," said Donna O'Meara. "Living here, we see nature's beauty and ferocity up close. I feel really privileged to have a front row seat. We live in the world's most beautiful living laboratory."

Though predicting volcanic activity is no sure bet, it appears that Kilauea's enduring eruption will continue indefinitely.

"For this particular eruption to stop you would need some kind of dramatic change to occur—something that hasn't happened in 20 years," said Steve O'Meara. "These things do occur and have occurred in the past, but right now there is no sign of this stopping."

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