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.

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