Most of us feel fortunate if we never go near a dangerous battlefield. Yet, dozens, if not hundreds, of people are knowingly — or unwittingly — doing just that every day on Kilauea volcano.
The “battlefield” in question is the ocean entry, where, according to legend, Pele — Hawaiian deity of volcanoes — clashes with her sister, Namakaokahai — Hawaiian deity of the sea. Stories of their encounters reflect the tumultuous interactions that occur when lava meets the sea.
The US Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has repeatedly cautioned people about the hazards of ocean entries in previous “Volcano Watch” articles. But Hawaii residents and visitors continue to put themselves at risk by approaching Kilauea’s ocean entry too closely, both by land and by sea.
Recently, kayakers paddled just feet from lava streaming into the ocean. Then, further risking their lives, they went ashore, walking across new land built by the ocean entry and then scooping molten lava with their paddles. Their actions were unsafe and cause for grave concern — not to mention, culturally insensitive.
Because so many things could have gone awry — instantly and with disastrous results — for the kayakers and other risk-takers, HVO is again reminding folks that ocean entries are exceedingly hazardous areas.
Lava entering the sea builds a platform of new land known as a lava delta. This new land appears deceptively stable, but the veneer of lava hides a foundation of loose rubble. Consequently, lava deltas are extremely unstable, and they can collapse without warning. Kilauea’s largest delta collapse sent 44 acres of new land plummeting into the ocean. But a collapse of only 1 square yard can be deadly, if that’s where you’re standing.
When lava deltas collapse, the mix of lava and seawater generates steam-driven explosions that blast fragments of molten lava and blocks of hot rock hundreds of yards inland and seaward. Rocks the size of a small file cabinet have been hurled 330 yards, with fist-sized rocks thrown as far as 1/4 mile.
If you are on or near a lava delta when it collapses, you are in immediate peril. Imagine the land beneath your feet abruptly giving way, plunging you into a chaotic jumble of scalding seawater and rocky debris. Envision a wave, generated by tons of rock crashing into the sea, swamping kayaks and boats, engulfing swimmers and paddleboarders, and wreaking havoc as it washes ashore. This could all happen.
There is no way to know exactly when a collapse might occur — and it’s unlikely you can outrun, out-paddle or outswim the dangers. Past attempts to flee lava delta collapses have ended with serious injuries and death.
In addition to lava delta collapses, ocean entries pose myriad other hazards, described in detail on HVO’s website, hvo.wr.usgs.gov/hazards/oceanentry/main.html.
For example, the white plume produced when lava enters the sea may look harmless, but it’s a corrosive mixture of superheated steam, hydrochloric acid, and tiny particles of volcanic glass — all to be avoided. Ocean waves washing over an active entry can send boiling seawater farther inland than expected, scalding anyone in its path.
Not surprisingly, people are drawn to the beauty of ocean entries. But, like moths to a flame, approaching too closely is risky. Based on decades of experience observing ocean entries and the consequences of lava delta collapses, HVO advises people to stay 1/4 mile away from where lava enters the sea.
To date, four deaths on Kilauea have been related to ocean entry hazards. Given the recently observed disregard for these hazards, we fear that tragedy will strike again.
Last week’s hiker death was not directly related to the ocean entry. But it underscores the need to be fully prepared for a long, hot hike if you plan to trek across Kilauea’s lava flow field, which can be legally accessed via Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Tips for safe lava hiking and viewing are available at pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2000/fs152-00/fs152-00.pdf and from National Park rangers.
With due diligence, you can safely witness lava entering the sea. Know the hazards. Keep a safe distance from the ocean entry. And, above all, do not be misguided by the risky actions of others.
Kilauea activity update
A lava lake within the Halemaumau Overlook vent produced nighttime glow visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and via HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lava lake reached to within 130 feet of the floor of Halemaumau Crater, in response to a several-day-long inflation, before cycles of deflation and inflation started again May 13.
The lava level dropped thereafter, rising and falling between about 165 and 230 feet below the crater floor.
On Kilauea’s east rift zone, breakouts from the Peace Day tube remain active on the pali and on the coastal plain. Small ocean entries are active on both sides of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundary, though the entry within the National Park has diminished considerably. A breakout started May 6 from a spatter cone on the northeast edge of Puu Oo’s crater floor has traveled about 0.6 miles toward the north, adjacent to the Kahaualea flow that died last month.
No earthquakes were reported felt in the past week across Hawaii Island.
Visit hvo.wr.usgs.gov for Volcano Awareness Month details and Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.
Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.