It is surprisingly warm on an early spring morning as my friend, Vicky, and I stroll along Crater Rim Trail flanking Kilauea Volcano’s smoldering Halema’uma’u Crater on the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Viewed through a smoggy veil of sulfurous gas and steam, Kilauea is this day living up to its reputation as the world’s most active volcano. It has been continuously erupting since 1983. You’ve undoubtedly witnessed its periodic lava flows on the evening news, creeping relentlessly down the volcano’s southern slope, or pali, engulfing everything in sight along its 36-mile course to the sea.
A recent spate of earthquakes has rattled the region, reactivating a surface flow of lava from Pu’u’O’o crater in the park’s southeast corner, which on March 5 sent molten lava crashing through the last home standing in the one-time residential development of Hawaiian Gardens. These seismic tremors also have boosted the volume of gas and steam emitting from a vent in Halema’uma’u crater. They’ve stirred up the crater’s lava lake bottom as well, producing a vivid orange glow clearly visible at night from viewing areas along Crater Rim Trail and the Jaggar Museum.
Periods of increased volcanic activity greatly enhance the Kilauea visitor experience – but also present some potentially serious risks. Volcanic gas and steam can deliver dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide, which can cause heart and respiratory problems, especially among those diagnosed with such deficiencies, the young, elderly and pregnant women. An experienced corps of National Park Service rangers and interpreters maintain a constant vigil over geologic and weather conditions and adroitly control access to potentially risky trails and roadways throughout the 230,000-acre park.
During our visit, for example, Crater Rim Drive, which under normal conditions allows visitors to drive around the five-mile-wide Kilauea caldera, was temporarily closed because portions of it were shrouded in gaseous fumes because of shifting wind conditions. Our trek along the 11.6-mile Crater Rim Trail, which began at the trailhead near the Kilauea Visitor Center, was blocked as well after little more than a mile (at Trail Stop 10, approaching Waldron Ledge Overlook) by a barricade – for the same reason as the road closure. We realized, as all visitors should, the danger of ignoring such warnings. Still, we were able to view quite a lot of the wondrous and enormous caldera and its fuming Halema’uma’u Crater.
We hiked back to the Visitor Center – a must stop for park exhibits, displays and up-to-the-minute trail/road access information – and drove a short distance to Jaggar Museum which stands on the caldera rim just above Halema’uma’u Crater. Named after scientist Dr. Thomas Jaggar who came to Kilauea in 1912 and devoted his life to the study of the volcano, this is where we really gained some understanding of the geologic wonderland before us. The place is loaded with displays, interactive exhibits and real-time feeds of instrumented readings of volcanic activity taking place just beyond the museum doors. Admission is free and the Jaggar is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Our next move, a drive down the 18-mile Chain of Craters Road, which tracks historic lava flows down Kilauea’s eastern flank to the sea, was thwarted as well thanks to road repairs, which reduced traffic to a single lane. Growing impatient with our stop-and-go progress and ready for lunch, we backtracked to Volcano House, the park’s only dining and lodging facility, located across from the Visitor Center. But, alas, it was closed for renovation and not slated to reopen until sometime this summer. It was becoming clear to us that our timing for a park visit wasn’t the best. Have faith dear reader – by the time you’re flipping these pages most scheduled renovation and road repairs will have been completed. With luck, the wind direction will likely have changed as well. Our situation reminded us, however, that Mother Nature is clearly in charge here and we humans had best take heed and pay homage.
For native Hawaiians, including my friend Vicky, homage is precisely what is paid in these parts to the legendary (outsiders might say mythical) goddess of the island’s volcanoes, Pele. This capricious female deity, pictured with flowing raven-black hair, is believed to reside somewhere within the fiery inferno of Kilauea and is viewed by natives as responsible for all volcanic activity.