In Hawaii, volcanoes aren't violent killers like Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines or even Mt. St. Helens in Oregon. Vulcanologists refer to Hawaii's volcanic eruptions as "quiet" eruptions, since gases escape slowly instead of building up and exploding violently all at once. Hawaii's eruptions produce slow-moving, oozing lava that provides excellent, safe viewing most of the time. In Hawaii, people run to volcanoes instead of fleeing from them.
Since the current eruption of Kilauea began on January 3, 1983, lava has covered some 16,000 acres of lowland and rain forest, threatening rare hawks, honeycreeper birds, spiders, and bats, while destroying power and telephone lines and eliminating water service possibly forever. Some areas have been mantled repeatedly and are now buried underneath 80 feet of lava.
Even though people haven't had to run fleeing from this flow, it has still caused its share of destruction. At last count, the lava flow had destroyed nearly 200 homes and businesses, wiped out Kaimu Black Sand Beach (once Hawaii's most photographed beach) and Queen's Bath, obliterated entire towns and subdivisions (Kalapana, Royal Gardens and Kalapana Gardens subdivisions, and Kapaahu Homesteads), and buried natural and historic landmarks (a 12th-century heiau, the century-old Kalapana Mauna Kea Church, Wahaulu Visitors Center, and thousands of archaeological artifacts and sites). The cost of the destruction of the eruption--so far--is estimated at $100 million. But how do you price the destruction of a 700-year old temple or a 100-year-old church?
But the volcano has not only destroyed, it has also added--more than 560 acres of new land to the island by the beginning of 1998. The volume of erupted lava over the last 1 1/2 decades measures nearly two billion cubic yards--that's enough new rock to pave a two-lane highway 1.2 million miles long, circling the earth some 50 times. Or, as a spokesperson for the park puts it: "Every five days, there is enough lava coming out of Kilauea volcano's eruption to place a thin veneer over Washington D.C.--all 63 square miles."
The most prominent vent of the eruption has been Puu Oo, a 760-foot-high cinder-and-spatter cone. The most recent flow--the one you'll be able to see, if you're lucky--follows a 7-mile-long tube from the Puu Oo vent area to the sea. This lava flow has extended the Big Island's shoreline seaward and added hundreds of acres of new land along the steep southern slopes. Periodically, the new land proves unstable, falls under its own weight, and slides into the ocean. (These areas of ground gained and lost are not included in the tally of new acreage--only the land that sticks counts.)
Scientists are also keeping an eye on Mauna Loa, which has been swelling since its last eruption in 1983. If there's a new eruption, they predict that there could be a fast-moving flow down the southwest side of the island, possibly into South Kona or Kau.
What You're Likely to See--Hopefully, the eruption will still be going on when you visit the park. Recently, vulcanologists predicted that the eruption would continue unabated, with no end in sight. Scientists are perplexed by Kilauea's continuing eruption, as major eruptions in the past have ended abruptly after only several months. A continuous eruption of more than a decade and a half is setting new ground, so to speak.
But neither Mother Nature nor Madame Pele (the volcano goddess) runs on a schedule. The volcano could be shooting fountains of lava hundreds of feet into the air on the day you arrive, or it could be completely quiet--there are no guarantees with nature. On many days, the lava flows right by accessible roads, and you can get as close as the heat will allow; sometimes, however, the lava flow is miles away from the nearest access point, visible only in the distance or in underground tubes where you can't see it.
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