Saturday, November 30, 2013

Visiting Volcano National Park: Part III (also happy Thanksgiving!)

Finally, part three of my adventure to Volcanoes National Park three weeks ago. It's also coming out the day after Thanksgiving, and I'm certainly thankful that I live on this amazing island and get to see such amazing sights.

Anyway, after hiking back up out of Kīlauea Iki, we drove down Chain of Craters Road. This is a short (23 miles, 38 kilometer) road that starts near Kīlauea Caldera and descends nearly 3,700 feet (1.130 meters), passing by several craters before plunging steeply down a scarp and ending abruptly at sea level along Hawaiʻi's barren, wind-swept south-eastern coast where it was covered by lava flows. Here, a patchwork of recent lava flows (many less than five hundred years old, and nearly all less than a thousand) contrast sharply with struggling, stubby ground-cover, providing a very different look from the lush rainforests where the road begins.

Down where the road ends in a small turn-around and some park buildings, there's a small look-out point facing the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean. Down the coast a few hundred feet we saw this nice-looking sea-arch carved by wave action in the hard lava rock.

Sea-arch on the south-east coast of Hawaiʻi.
Passing beyond where the road is closed to vehicle traffic, we walked along it for perhaps half a mile before coming to where lava flows between 1986 and 1996 covered it. It used to reach to the town of Kalapana further up the coast and serve as a second entrance into the park, but not anymore since Kīlauea begin its current eruptive cycle in 1983.

Looking back along the road from whence we came.
The sight of lava covering the road put me into a bit of a sober mood. It brought to mind Shelley's sonnet Ozymandias, and its theme of time and entropy's eventual triumph over man's accomplishments.

A weighty subject, to be sure, but it's very strange to see something as common and ubiquitous as an asphalt road covered in a lava flow. Most of the lava flows on the island are historical curiosities to me – although many of them are not that long ago, historically speaking, they're still from before I was born, and usually what you see is asphalt and other human structures on top of lava – not the reverse. The lack of context around the road makes it easy to imagine “this could be the road in front of my house covered in lava.” Although Hilo is in much less danger than most of the south and west coast of Hawaiʻi, it's always good to keep in mind the 1880 flow from Mauna Loa that came within a few miles of downtown Hilo – the Kaumana Caves that I've crawled around in came from that flow, and it came within a mile of where my current workplace is located.

Anyway, enough seriousness. Chain of Craters Road was actually first covered by lava in 1969. It was re-opened in 1979 before being closed again in 1986, but I imagine the sign I found below is from that time period:

You don't say...
By this point it was early evening and the sky was beginning to darken. After walking around on the lava near where it covered the road for a bit, we headed back to the car then drove back up Chain of Crater Road. A bit more than halfway along, we took a turn off for a lava tree forest. From what I've read, I gather that this was the original Chain of Craters road when it was created back in 1928, back when it merely took drivers out to Makaopuhi Crater (which is no longer accessible by road, only a hike). It wasn't until 1959 that it was extended to Kalapana to create the road we were driving on before.

Anyway, we drove a short distance along until reaching a parking lot shortly before the place where this original road was also covered by lava. Uphill from the road we found places where trees had been surrounded in lava and subsequently burned or rotted away, leaving holes where the trunks were. Sadly, it was starting to get dark, so I wasn't able to get many good pictures.

The hole you see there is a cast of a tree trunk. We found nearly a dozen in the area in the short time we were there, but most of them were not different enough from this one to bother getting a picture.

Well, except for these three. I found the collection of shapes to look rather like a surprised face. Lava apparently collected around the tree trunks forming raised, rounded shapes around them, so it makes a nice “head” with two holes for eyes and another (harder to see) for a mouth.

At this point the sun had gone down and it was quite dark, so we headed back to the car and drove back to the Jagger Museum outlook again. The sight was quite different from when we first came during the day. In the daytime, there isn't much to see except a large hole in the ground inside a larger depression, with a never-ending cloud of gas arising. At night time, all is cast into shadow, except for the still-ascending gas cloud which is lit from below with a fiery orange glow. This was definitely one of the high points of the day for me – seeing with clarity the light from Earth's molten core spilling out through this break in its flimsy crust. It was highly impressive, and I recommend going to see it if you ever get the chance.

Unfonrtunately, the darkness and the fact that I was trying to take a picture of a glowing cloud meant that I just could not get an acceptable picture, though not for lack of trying. Possibly with a tripod and a long exposure, but I didn't have one with my and short exposures just weren't cutting it. I really, really wish I had one to put up here, but the best I got is just a fuzzy, out-of-focus orange cloud. I was hoping to capture how the light from the lava lake was lighting up the far inner walls of Halemaʻumaʻu crater, but I just couldn't get the camera to focus. Perhaps another time.

And with that, it's time to wrap this series up. I'm planning on taking another hiking trip in the area tomorrow, so hopefully I'll have some new pictures up in a bit. A hui hou!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Visiting Volcano National Park: Part II

Last post I introduced my trip to Volcanoes National Park last week. The first part was a bit short because I felt a single post would be too long, and the Kīlauea Iki hike really ought to get a post to itself.

Kīlauea Iki is the name of a pit crater that developed to the east of the main Kīlauea caldera in 1959, catching vulcanologists of the time by surprise and forming a lava lake measuring 0.7 by 0.4 miles. You can see it below as it looks from the trail head up on the top of the surrounding cliffs:

Kīlauea Iki, seen from the top of the cliffs around it.
The large bare hill in the center of the picture was created during the 1959 eruption from some spectacularly high lava fountains (up to 1,900 feet! [580 m]) and is known as Puʻu Puaʻi, which translates to something like “gushing hill.”

The trail makes a loop around the north rim of the pit, then dives swiftly down to the floor of the frozen magma sea and cuts across it back to the base of the cliffs below where the trailhead is, before steeply ascending to come out near another famous park sight, the Thurston Lava Tube (alternatively you can walk the trail in reverse order, that's just the way we went).

Here you can see the floor of Kīlauea Iki. The gray streak from left to right is the path.
Cores drilled in the lava field show that the entire lake solidified within a few tens of years after the eruption, but the rock is still quite hot. Putting my hand on it at one point I was surprised to feel that it was markedly hotter than would be expected from solar heating based on the weak sunlight coming through the cloudy, overcast sky. In a few places steam could be seen continually wafting off the surface, similar to the Steam Vents I showed last post.

Eventually we wound our way around the crater rim till the trail began to switchback steeply down the inside of the bowl, until we got to the bottom where this sight met our eyes:

Panorama of Kīlauea Iki. Ignore the horribly overexposed sky. Mouseover for original handmade panorama!
From the floor of the crater, a landscape more reminiscient of Mordor could hardly be imagined. For some reason this immediately suggested the following picture to me:

I mua! Forward!
After this, we set out across the great arid plain, following the trail to the base of Puʻu Puaʻi. Although the vast expanse of rock showed no signs of life from the crater rim (other than the many tourists wandering along its trail), we soon found various plants, shrubs, and even young trees sprouting up in places through the rock, clinging to life in an inhospitable environment. One such example is the ʻōhelo berry bush below:

ʻŌhelo berries growing in Kīlauea Iki crater.
ʻŌhelo (Vaccinium reticulata) are endemic to the Hawaiian isles and are adapted to grow on volcanic soil high up on the flanks of Hawaiian volcanoes. They're an important source of food for the state bird, the nēnē, and being relatives of cranberries and blueberries they are also human edible. ʻŌhelo berry jam from wild-picked berries is a popular home-canning project.

Near the base of Puʻu Puaʻi I found a large crack in the ground about as deep as I was tall, and tried to pose for a picture of me desperately hanging onto the edge. The lava turned out to be a lot sharper on bare skin than I had anticipated, however.

I did, however, manage to get the picture below:

Hang in there!
After these shenanigans at the foot of Puʻu Puaʻi, we set out on the trek across the main portion of the crater floor towards the far side and the trail leading back up to where we started. It was a fascinating experience, walking over the crystallized undulations of the solidified lava lake, its final random motions frozen in stone and time. Most extruded lava in Hawaiʻi is bumpy and rough to some extent, so it was very strange seeing (and walking on) such smooth rock. In places it had been broken up, victim to the stresses and strains of thermal expansion and contraction as parts of the lake cooled down unevenly. A little ways out from the base of Puʻu Puaʻi I looked back and got this picture:

At a few places on the crater floor steam was rising from the ground in a continuous display, reinforcing the Mordor look. You can see one such place in the picture below:

I investigated one to see if the steam was coming from a crack or other aperture, but it simply seemed to be rising straight out of the ground.

From across the floor of the crater we took one last look back at Puʻu Puaʻi across the frozen lava sea before turning and beginning the torturous ascent back to the crater rim.

I would have to say that this hike across Kīlauea Iki was the high point of the trip for me. There's just something incredibly cool about walking across the surface of what was a roiling, boiling lake of molten lava a little less than four score years ago. If you ever visit Volcanoes National Park, have the time, and are prepared for a hike of several miles, I would definitely recommend going on this one. Especially if you read some of the helpful information boards at the head of the trail first.

As a final photo, have this picture of an ʻōhiʻa lehua blossom that I took at the side of the trail along the rim of the crater. They're quite spectacular up close.

Anyway, that's been part two of my photo series. Tune in next time for the last part of our trip, and to see what happens when lava runs over a modern asphalt road! A hui hou!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Visiting Volcano National Park: Part I

Last Saturday I took a trip to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park with some co-workers, a place I've only been to twice before and which I've been meaning to visit for some time now that I have a car. And because of the number of pictures I took, I'm going to split them up into three posts.

Volcanoes National Park contains the summit caldera of both the Mauna Loa and Kīlauea active volcanos, although the former has no visitor facilities and requires a strenuous several hour hike – minimum – to access, while the latter has plenty of paved road and ample tourist amenities. There is a lot to see in the Kīlauea portion of the national park – there are miles of hikes you can take, not to mention the miles of paved road running around craters and over fresh lava flows.

Anyway, upon reaching the park, the first place we stopped at was the Sulfur Banks and Steam Vents, a location on the northern rim of the Kīlauea caldera where steam continually rises from the ground. It's quite strange to see a constant stream of steam wafting up from the ground. It's unfortunately also hard to photograph, so I only have the one photo of one of the areas steam was coming from:

My friend Graham next to a steam vent. The hole is only about 6 feet deep, the steam rises off the floor.
After that, we went along the rim of the caldera to the Thomas A. Jagger Museum which has a great outlook over the caldera (along with a scientific monitoring station). It also offers a spectacular view of the vast length of Mauna Loa, which caught me completely by surprise with its incredible beauty.

Mauna Loa panorama from near the summit of Kīlauea. Mouse over to see the original panorama.
(Edit 5/27/2018: I've replaced the original hand-made panorama with one from Hugin, but you can mouseover the image to see the original.)

From an overlook on the north rim of Kīlauea caldera, we got an excellent overview of Halemaʻumaʻu crater within it. Halemaʻumaʻu crater has an active lava lake within in (though it is too low to be seen from the overlook at the moment), and has off and on for a few dozen years now. Below is a picture of Halemaʻumaʻu crater, with large clouds of poisonous sulfur dioxide gas rising out of it:

Halemaʻumaʻu crater.
This massive pit in the ground made quite an impression on me. Knowing that at the bottom lay a lake of molten rock, seeing the gases rising up from was an awe-inspiring sight. According to what I read in the museum Kīlauea is estimated to have had a cone several hundred feet higher about 500 years ago that collapsed into a truly massive caldera, which over the intervening years gradually filled with more and more cooled lava until the present day where the floor of the caldera has filled to within 400 feet of the rim at most.

Kīlauea is a rather unusual volcano in its near-constant, yet gentle activity. Very, very few volcanoes actually have sustained lava lakes – in fact only four of them exist in the world at the moment. And most volcanoes when they erupt tend to do so much more violently, making it incredibly dangerous to be around them while they are active. Yet Kīlauea repeatedly has mild, effusive eruptions of lava that tends to move slowly enough not to be a threat, to the point where it's completely normal for people to walk up and poke sticks into it. It offers an almost completely unique chance to experience an active volcano without a corresponding probability of death closer to one than to zero. It's utterly fascinating, and if you ever get the chance to visit, do so.

Now, this has been a short post, but the next one will have a lot more pictures as it will deal with the incredibly cool Kīlauea Iki hike that we spent a few hours on. A hui hou!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Hawaiian Sunset

Monday evening we had an absolutely gorgeous sunset here in Hilo. The clouds were unusually high in the sky, allowing the setting Sun to light them from beneath in a breathtaking fiery display.

Usually the clouds around here are a lot lower in elevation, and especially with the combined mass of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in the way to the west the Sun usually can't get beneath them to light them up like this. Since the summit of Mauna Kea is visible (to the left of the lamp-post on the right), these clouds must be higher than 14,000 feet (or 4,200 meters). Lovely sight, anyway. A hui hou!