During a volcanic eruption, we are reminded that our planet is an ever-changing environment whose basic processes are beyond human control. As much as we have altered the face of the Earth to suit our needs, we can only stand in awe before the power of an eruption.US National Park Service
Hawaiian Ridge - Emperor seamount chain consisting of islands, undersea mountains and volcanoes extends across the Pacific Ocean.

Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, NOAA and ESRI® Data & Maps (Public Domain)

The “Hawaiian – Emperor seamount chain” is a vast undersea mountain range interspersed with islands, underwater mountains (seamounts), atolls (ring shaped coral reefs encircling a lagoon), shallows, banks, reefs and more than 80 volcanoes, that extending across the Pacific Ocean for 3,728 miles (60,000 kilometers) from the Hawaiian islands to Alaska and Siberia. The chain has been forming during the last 70 to 80+ million years by volcano eruptions and movement of the ocean floor (the “Pacific Plate”) over a volcanic region known as the “Hawaii hotspot”. Closest to this hotspot is the Hawaiian archipelago (aka Windward islands) that includes eight main islands: Hawaii (aka ‘the Big Island’, the Island of Hawaii & Hawaii Island to distinguish it from the US state of Hawaii), Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe, a number of small islands, atolls, and seamounts, extending 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the Kure Atoll to the Big Island, the southernmost point of the Hawaiian – Emperor seamount chain.


The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight major islands, several atolls, numerous smaller islets, and seamounts in the North Pacific Ocean.


The formation of the Big Island is the result of sequential and simultaneous eruptions of five ‘shield’ volcanoes (low profile, circular, slopping shield shaped volcanoes) over a period of about 300,000 – 600,000 years, and at 93 miles (150 km) across and a land area of 4,028 sq. miles (10,430 km²), it’s the largest of the Hawaiian islands and still growing because of the lava flow from currently active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea.

In accordance with beliefs and practices of the traditional Hawaiian religion, summits of the five Big Island volcanoes are revered by native Hawaiians as sacred mountains, and the powerful, passionate Fire Goddess, Pele, is believed to live within the Halema’uma’u crater located at the summit of Kīlauea. Pele’s domain, however, includes all volcanic activity on the Big Island, and she has the ability to cause lava to erupt from the ground at any time.  She’s been a very busy goddess.


Simplified map of Kilauea volcano, dated 2000, courtesy of USGS, Public Domain



Kilauea volcano is still active on the Island of Hawaii, and NASA-led scientists are studying the effects and hazards.

Kilauea at Night, NASA photo



The Kīlauea Volcano

The name ‘Kīlauea’ is translated to ‘spewing’ or ‘much spreading’, referring to frequent lava flows originating from the volcano. The name is well-deserved as there have been 61 separate eruptions from Kīlauea since 1823, making it one of the most active volcanoes on planet Earth.  Most of these eruptions have been relatively moderate and have occurred within one of its ‘rift zones’ with lava flows moving downslope.  [A rift zone is an area of ruptures on the surface that allows lava to erupt and flow from the flank of a volcano instead of its summit.]  However, Pele does periodically create havoc with explosive and sometimes deadly eruptions that expel molten rock and gases across the landscape.     

Kīlauea’s most recent major eruption (dating back to January 3. 1983) is the longest period of volcanic activity in its documented history, and continues to this day from its summit and the volcanic cone, Puʻu ʻŌʻō (‘high point on the skyline’) located within Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone.  [Volcanic cones are formed by the ejected magma rocks piling up around a vent.]  As of December 2012, the lava flow from this eruption had covered 48 sq. miles of land, added 500 acres of land to the Big Island, destroyed 214 structures (including the community of Kapa’ahu, the historic Kalapana village, and two residential subddvisions), and buried 9 miles of highway as well as a black sand beach at Kaimu.  While there may be at some point a break from this constant activity, scientists expect that Kīlauea will continue to erupt far into the future.


A spectacle, sublime and even appalling, presented itself before us. We stopped and trembled. Astonishment and awe for some moments rendered us mute, and, like statues, we stood fixed to the spot, with our eyes riveted on the abyss below.William Ellis (1794-1872), describing the first sight of Kilauea


See the lava flow from Kīlauea up close in HD.  Two short videos, “Dawn of Fire” and “River of Fire”, (filmed and produced by Tyler Hulett) capture flowing molten lava as it moves toward the Pacific Ocean from Puʻu ʻŌʻō during daylight and night.  It’s an incredible sight to see.






The first western visitors to Kīlauea were two missionaries in 1823, William Ellis, an Englishman, and American, Asa Thurston, and after the building of hotels on its rim in the 1840’s, Kīlauea became a tourist attraction.  Today, it’s protected within the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and visited by 2.6 million people annually.  The park offers visitors dramatic volcanic landscapes of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, archeological sites, historical places, and a look at rare flora, fauna and wildlife as well as hiking, biking, touring and camping.  Popular stops are the Kilauea Visitor Center and the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum & observation deck.  It’s also possible to view the spectacular sight of lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean at the Kamokuna entry point (as of January 2017), but visitors must be prepared for a long hike and ever-changing, hazardous conditions.


Kīlauea Continues to Erupt 

Kīlauea Activity and Conditions as of March 20, 2018, Courtesy of USGS – Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park Service.  [For up-to-date information on the conditions at Kīlauea, check out the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park website page “What’s Going on with the Volcano?”]

Activity Summary:  The eruptions at Kīlauea Volcano’s summit and East Rift Zone continue without significant changes. This morning’s measurement of the depth to the lava lake surface within the Halemaʻumaʻu Overlook vent was 32.5m (~107ft) beneath the adjacent crater floor. The Episode 61g lava flow is active, although clouds have obscured webcam views of surface lava flow activity over upper parts of the flow field and on Pulama pali. These lava flows pose no threat to nearby communities. Lava is not flowing into the ocean at this time. Low rates of ground deformation and seismicity continue across the volcano.

Current Volcano Alert Level as of 3/20/2018:  WATCH

Volcanic Air Pollution:  “Vog” (from the words ‘volcanic’ and ‘smog’) refers to the hazy air pollution caused by the volcanic gas emissions from Kīlauea as they react to the atmosphere.  Vog can cause headaches as well as irritation to lungs and eyes;  however, the effects are more serious for those with asthma or other respiratory problems.  For information about current vog conditions and forecasts, potential health hazards, and advice on protective measures, visit the Hawaii Interagency Vog Information Dashboard.

Scientific Study:  In January 2017, a NASA-led science team began exploring Kīlauea and Mauna Loa from the air, ground and space to better understand volcanic processes and find ways to mitigate the hazards.  


Video:  Lava entering ocean at Kamokuna.  Credit:  NPS/Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Public Domain

Lava Flow Field and Ocean Entry Point:  The current location of active surface lava requires a long hike (up to 10-12 miles roundtrip) across uneven, glassy (sharp), lava flow surfaces, often in hot and dry conditions. Hikers and visitors to the Puʻu ʻŌʻō lava flow field should be prepared for a variety of hazards, including, but not limited to: hard, rough, uneven terrain, which can lead to falls, abrasions, lacerations, and other injuries, as well as heat exhaustion or dehydration. Heavy rains can occur with little warning, producing a steamy ground-fog that severely limits visibility.  No services are available on the lava flow field and cell reception is limited.

Though inactive at present, the 2016-2017 lava delta remains potentially unstable, and collapse of some or all of the delta without warning is possible. In several instances, collapses have also incorporated parts of the older sea cliff. Explosions of rocky debris remain possible should collapses suddenly expose the hot interior of the inactive lava delta.

References/Information Sources:
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park  Find Kīlauea vistor information, including eruption/emission/lava flow updates, hiking & safety tips, photos & video
USGS – Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Kīlauea history, status reports, updates & information
Wikipedia:  Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii (Island), Kīlauea, List of volcanoes in the Hawaiian – Emperor seamount chain, Hawaiian religion, Pele

There are more than 400 US national parks available to everyone, every day.  Most are free to enjoy, and the 117 that charge an entry fee (e.g., Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park) offer fee-free days throughout the year.
Find Your Park  ← Use the search tools on this website to find the perfect place to visit.   


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Feature photo credit:  Puʻu ʻŌʻō, courtesy of GE Ulrich, USGS (Public Domain). [Note: Puʻu ʻŌʻō is a volcanic cone that allows lava flow eruptions from the eastern flank of the Kīlauea summit. It has been erupting since January 3, 1983.]  
Image: Map of Hawaiian Islands, United States Geological Survey, Public Domain
Image: Simplified map of Kīlauea Volcano (2000) by J. Johnson, USGS, Public Domain
Photo:  Kīlauea at Night is courtesy of NASA

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Posted by Zola Zeester

Zola is a vagabond playmaker, the On2In2™ recreation guru and primary source of inspiration for this article. Currently resides at Zeester Media HQ.

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