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An overflow of volcano interest

January 23, 2014 - 9:23pm

More than 100 people spent Wednesday evening learning the history, stories and impacts of volcanic features from Ka‘u to North Kona. Vehicles filled the parking lot outside of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority’s Gateway Visitor Center and even lined the entrance road. Meanwhile, a standing-room-only crowd packed the center.

The free presentation, offered by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as part of Volcano Awareness Month, featured scientist-in-charge Jim Kauahikaua and geologist Janet Babb who took the audience on a virtual road trip revealing another side of the seemingly barren, rugged volcanic wastelands.

Thursday, Babb said the observatory “deeply regrets” that an estimated 80 to 100 people had to be turned away at the door, and apologized.

“The interest in our presentation on Wednesday night was unprecedented. The NELHA Gateway Visitor Center, which graciously hosted the talk and went the extra mile by bringing in extra chairs, provided seating for 120 people — the expected maximum attendance based on past talks,” she said.” An additional number of people were allowed in on a standing-room-only basis, but when the total number reached the fire code capacity of the center, we had no choice but to turn people away. There was no way to anticipate the exceedingly high level of interest in this or any particular talk.”

Babb said the observatory will “most definitely” offer the talk again in West and East Hawaii in the coming months and will ensure that future venues can accommodate several hundred people. These talks will be publicized on the observatory’s website and through local media, she added.

Wednesday’s journey spanned the 1800s to 1950 and centered on lava flows that erupted from Mauna Loa and Hualalai. Is the past key to the future? The observatory thinks so.

“In the past, Mauna Loa has erupted voluminous, fast-moving lava flows that have crossed the road and reached the ocean in a matter of hours; destroyed homes, businesses, roads, grazing land and forests; disrupted communication, traffic and people’s lives; and produced statewide dense vog, impacting humans, animals and plants,” Babb said. “Based on past eruptions, we can expect that future eruptions of Mauna Loa will have similar impacts. Thus the question — ‘How will Mauna Loa’s next eruption impact us?’”

Consider the 1868 Mauna Loa eruption, which was first noted March 27 by a harbormaster in Kawaihae, and accompanied by reports of Kilauea’s lava lake draining and numerous earthquakes being felt in Kona and Ka‘u. The largest earthquake in Hawaii Island’s recorded history occurred April 2, followed by “a fine dust filling the atmosphere in Honolulu” and other unusual events. That earthquake — estimated to have been stronger than magnitude 7.0 — destroyed buildings, flattened stone walls and reportedly stopped clocks and engines. Coastal villages were inundated by an estimated 50- to 60-foot tsunami and succession of five large waves, which swept people and animals out to sea, Kauahikaua said.

In Kiolakaa, near Wood Valley, there was a mud flow that buried houses, trees, people and animals. Later, a great crack opened along Mauna Loa’s southwest rift zone above the Capt. Robert Brown ranch in Kahuku and lava flowed directly to it, Kauahikaua said. “Within three hours, that flow reached the ocean, a distance of about 10 miles from the vent,” he added.

By April 7, 1868, news of the eruption had reached the Hawaiian monarchy and the first relief effort began. King Kamehameha V and the finance minister departed Honolulu on a steamer and arrived April 10 in Hilo. Besides taking depositions on the losses and needs, he awarded some on his land holdings in Puna to those hit hardest, Kauahikaua said. The relief party helped nearly 800 people.

The presenters shared accounts, photographs and sketches from the 1800s and 1900s, films from the Mauna Loa 1950 eruption, and images of how the flows and volcanic landscapes appear today.

Sometimes, people waxed poetically, even humorously, about what they witnessed in their accounts. While covering the Mauna Loa eruption on April 16, 1926, Jazz Belknap of the Hilo Tribune-Herald wrote, “The zero hour is at hand. Madame Pele is expected to go over the top of the government road at any time and as usual everybody except the owner of the land is as happy as a four-headed rat in a cheese factory.”

Other times, there were no first-hand reports and only estimates or best guessed conclusions about certain aspects of eruptions. For instance, one of the last eruptions on Hualalai occurred sometime during the end of the 18th century and in 1801, a period not well-documented, and the existing references are contradictory. In detective-like fashion, the observatory has pieced together the accounts with information scientists have gained from studying the actual lava flows, Kauahikaua said.

The observatory knows lava flows erupted from six vents on Hualalai’s northwest rift zone. The two largest and best known are the Kaupulehu flow, which went into the ocean between the Kona Village Resort and Kiholo Bay, and the Huehue flow, on which the airport is built. The observatory doesn’t know exactly how long these eruptions lasted, but it’s mostly certain the Huehue flow, which destroyed Kamehameha’s vast fishpond, Paaiea, erupted last, Kauahikaua said.

A reoccurring theme throughout Wednesday’s presentation was how people determined they were to watch rapid, voluminous lava flows, typically at leisure and without great worry about ongoing or approaching danger. Some paid greatly for ignoring hazards and warnings or had to be rescued. Some profited by offering tours and launching other ventures such as selling ice cream.

One such entrepreneur profited from visitors observing Mauna Loa’s 1926 eruption, which buried the coastal village of Hoopuloa, as well as “ruthlessly crushed and destroyed its wharf and harbor,” prior to entering the ocean. Those watching the eruption parked their cars on the Kona side of Hoopuloa. An enterprising young man used his small truck to haul water from the Hoopuloa tanks to Milolii, the end of the road. When the flow reached the sea, he and his truck were cut off. He later took his truck apart and transported it piece by piece by canoe to the road on the Kona side of Hoopuloa, Babb said.

At the end of the presentation, Babb encouraged those with family stories, photos or “motion pictures” from the Mauna Loa eruptions in 1950 or earlier to call the observatory at 967-8844 or email Such information gives further insight into the island’s volcanic history and possible future, she added.

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