Part III: Pele vs. science

Halemaumau Crater

Part 2 | Main | Part 4

Sitting on the east flank of Mauna Loa, Kilauea, like all Hawaiian volcanoes, is a shield volcano built almost entirely of lava.

In Kilauea’s case, those flows have been fed by a continuous and massive river of molten lava pouring out at an average rate of more than 60 thousand gallons every single minute.

The volcano is true to her youth: fiesty, unpredictable and in a near-constant state of activity.

A thermal image of Puu Oo from Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
Thermal image of Puu Oo from Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

“If Kilauea were to start having explosive eruptions again, it probably would affect large parts of the state, ash in the air. Depending on how the winds are blowing, it might affect air traffic,” said Jim Kauahikaua, research geophysicist and former scientist-in-charge at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Kilauea’s eruptions are prominent in Hawaiian legend with the earliest written documents dating back to the 1820s, when it first attracted visitors from around the world.

Now, in the midst of one of the longest continuous eruptions known on Earth, Kilauea continues to draw global interest. Today, more than 4,000 people come here to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park each day, amounting to almost 1.5 million guests every year.

“This national park never fails to blow me away and it’s not just the science of the volcanoes and what you can see. That’s obvious,” said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs officer for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “The Hawaiian culture part of this park is mind-boggling and the geology, all three of those things.”

Fortunately for those who choose to visit or coexist with the volcano, advances in technology have helped scientists to better track Kilauea’s every move.

“We can say with some degree of certainty where these flows are going to grow, where they’re going to cross the highway or likely, at least the initial flows and that’s panned out well,” Kauahikaua said.

But admittedly, when it comes to nature and more specifically Kilauea, science has its limitations.

“With our volcanoes, the slopes are very shallow and flat and you don’t have a clue where these things are going to go, so we’ve been experimenting with GPS systems that work on digital elevation and models,” Kauahikaua said.

In addition to scientific barriers, there are also cultural considerations.

Former Big Island fire chief Darryl Oliveira was on the front lines for three decades. Now, as head of Hawaii County Civil Defense, he’s once again facing the fire.

Darryl Oliveira surveys Kilauea's damage
Hawaii County Civil Defense’s Darryl Oliveira surveys the damage

“Definitely here in Hawaii, it’s special, very unique. There’s a definite connection to the environment, the land and the volcano, so with a lot of the decisions we make as far as strategies and tactics, there is consideration to those cultural aspects,” Oliveira said.

Back in 1960, there was an attempt to divert or stop the lava from the Kapoho eruption. You can still see remnants of a trench to this day.

Piilani Kaawaloa’s grandmother grew up in nearby Koae and shared stories about the failed attempt at containing the lava.

“I see my grandmother, her childhood, oh, I’m gonna cry,” Kaawaloa said. “I see history. I see stories. I hear them.”

Lava still covered the whole town, except for the Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse.

“The reason why it went around the lighthouse is because the lighthouse saved lives and the lighthouse is still used to this day,” Kaawaloa said. “Just be patient, let the lava flow go were it needs to go and it won’t destroy homes. But once man starts to tamper, then we suffer the great loss.”

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