Earth, water, wind, and fire: ‘Lava viewing’ in Hawaii

Our Christmas gift to ourselves was a little trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, something we were thinking (dreaming) about for a long time. There are many great posts about the Hawaiian volcanoes on the geoblogosphere (see for example the ones here and here); I will try to add a few notes and pictures without being too repetitive (and will try to seem less ignorant in volcanic and hard-rock matters than I actually am).

Probably the most memorable experience we had was the lava viewing at Kalapana. This is where ‘officially’ you can get relatively close to the place where the lava from Pu`u `Ō`ō enters the ocean. The USGS has a nice website with updates on what’s going on. I was so anxious to see this place that we had to go there on our first day in Hawaii, that is, on December 22. You have to drive all the way to the end of road 130; there are some big ‘No trespassing’ signs at one point, but everybody seems to ignore them, and there is an official parking lot at the end of the road, way beyond the ‘no trespassing’ signs. It is best to get there 30-60 minutes before sunset, and to stay until it’s completely dark, to see the potential show both in daylight and in nighttime darkness. Unfortunately, on December 22 we didn’t see much, apart from a beautiful sunset and a few small puffs of steam:

Sunset at the Kalapana viewing site on December 22, 2008

That was a bit of a disappointment, but I knew I had to give it another try. After talking to a ranger from Volcanoes National Park, we drove back to Kalapana five days later. This time, the show was definitely on. More than that, it was spectacular. A huge column of steam formed where the active lava tube spills the lava into the sea, and repeated explosions painted red the lower part of the column. From time to time, several tornado-like funnels formed and connected the steam cloud to the ocean.

Steam cloud with mini-tornadoes on December 27, 2008; lava-viewing boat on the left for scale

As the sun goes down, the explosions become more colorful and more obvious

S-shaped funnel between the steamy sky and cool hot ocean

This was such a uniquely beautiful scene. I wish we went there more than two times, because the whole spectacle changes as a function of the activity of lava flow, weather conditions, the direction and nature of lighting.

I have also learned that it is not easy to take good photographs of fast-moving and rapidly changing distant things in the dark. Here is the proof:

4 thoughts on “Earth, water, wind, and fire: ‘Lava viewing’ in Hawaii

  1. A very neat sequence of eruption photos. And those mini-tornadoes are way cool! I was out there in 1987 when flows were covering the end of the road in Kalapana and had just partly buried a house. Geologists from the GSA meeting were sneaking off past the no trespassing signs and walking up to where lava was breaking out of tubes (it seemed a little too close to me).

  2. Quite beautiful. I suspect the mini tornadoes are actually forming over the hot water, heated by the lava- that is, they are not connecting “the steamy sky and cool ocean,” but the steamy sky and the steamier ocean. A tripod helps immensely with shots in the dark, but I have to say that the full-sized version of your last picture is very beautiful and dramatic- the sense of motion in the steam cloud is powerful. I certainly hope you don’t feel this is a failed or wasted picture.

  3. Silver Fox – the temptation was really strong to get a bit closer to the lava than the official viewing site… But I can kind of understand why they don’t want everybody to get too close to the action.Lockwood – you are probably right about the ocean being hotter than the steam cloud. The tornadoes occurred only in the immediate vicinity of the the lava entry point, where the water indeed must be hot. I did have a tripod with me, but the problem was that, with the long times needed for a reasonable exposure, everything got blurry. Of course, you can use higher sensitivity and shorter exposure times, but then the images became quite grainy and noisy. Being closer and not having to use a telephoto lens would have helped as well.

  4. Ah, that brings me back to our HI vacation. We also had beautiful shots up until sunset when we needed the longer exposures. Unfortunately, the wind also picked up enough that even with the tripod we got blurry photos. But, my memory remains. It’s an incredible experience.

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