The citizens of Hawaii’s Big Island had a rude awakening in the early hours of Thursday, May 3, 2018, when the Kilauea Volcano on the land mass began to give ominous signs of major activity. An earthquake shook the surrounding ground and lava started to stream from newly formed fissures along the elevation. It looked very much like these dramatic events could be the precursors of a highly destructive eruption. But there was no way for the islanders to know how bad things might get…
When thinking of Hawaii, it is not unreasonable to envision brightly colored and impossibly busy shirts, luxurious tropical island backdrops and exotic cocktails to enjoy in the sunshine. But, because of the islands’ particular geology and terrain, the popular tourist destination has a much darker side as well.
In fact, Hawaii’s 4,000 square miles include no less than five volcanoes, two of them dormant and three – including Kilauea – very much active. All of these natural features are of the type known as shield volcanoes. This term refers to volcanoes which are relatively low-lying as opposed to mountainous structures. From the air, their formation resembles a circular shield laid flat with the convex side uppermost.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of shield volcanoes is that they emit lava which is unusually liquid and so capable of flowing over vast distances at relatively great speed. Obviously, this is not good news if you happen to live near an active shield volcano as, alas, many Hawaiians do.
Geologists say that Kilauea is the youngest of Hawaii’s five volcanoes. It has been erupting to a greater or lesser degree since the early 19th century, with the only lengthy respite coming for 18 years or so between 1934 and 1952. The age of Kilauea has been calculated at between 300,000 and 600,000 years, and it is thought to have risen from the sea about 10 millennia ago.
This has been long enough for Hawaiians to become all too aware of the destructive capacity of volcanoes, and especially the awesome power of Kilauea. There were undoubtedly earlier eruptions but the first recorded in any scientific detail occurred in 1823. But, until now, probably the best-known Kilauea eruption was the one of 1924.
And it was this flare-up from almost a century ago that has been remembered as Kilauea’s last really major volcanic episode. In May 1924, lumps of rock weighing as much as 100 pounds were tossed about 200 feet into the air, while smaller rocks shot up almost 900 feet. Subsequently, columns of volcanic ash reached skywards to a height of some six miles. Thankfully, by some miracle, this eruption resulted in only one death.
The volcano remained active until 1934, when things calmed down somewhat. However, after an 18-year hiatus, Kilauea became active again in 1952 with frequent flows of lava. An especially large outpouring of molten rock came in 1969, large enough to add 230 acres of entirely new territory to the Big Island. That eruption was followed by a strong earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. After this seismic drama, Kilauea went quiet until 1977.
Nevertheless, activity over the next few years was relatively subdued, but in January 1983 more active lava effusions started seeping from the volcano’s eastern rift. In the five years from 1986, lava flowed from Kilauea along a pathway extending for seven miles. The nearby villages of Kapa’ahu and Kalapana were engulfed by molten rock and the lava flow even bisected Hawaii Route 130.
So Big Island residents had already seen Kilauea create plenty of chaos before May 2018, when signs of another major eruption became plain. An earthquake with a magnitude of 5.0 shook the ground at about 4:00 a.m. on May 3 and fissures opened up on the surrounding Leilani Estates. Lava was soon flowing from the new cracks in the ground around Kilauea.
In fact, the situation rapidly became worrisome enough for Hawaii Governor David Ige to call out troops from the state’s national guard. The soldiers would be required to help with the mass evacuation of the local population which was now thought to be inevitable. The very next day, May 4, the destruction of property began with two houses on the Leilani Estates lost.
Also on this day, the signs of approaching catastrophe became even more baleful as an earthquake measuring 6.9 rocked the island’s Puna district. This heralded the opening of more fissures on Kilauea, pouring out tons of molten lava. Just to add to the apocalyptic atmosphere, high levels of toxic sulfur dioxide choked the air and high heat levels began to affect the island’s infrastructure by melting electricity cables.
By May 6, the Leilani Estates had seen the destruction of 26 homes either overwhelmed by lava or set ablaze by residual heat. Eruptions of lava measuring up to 300 feet in height were shooting up into the air. The following day, some 1,700 residents were given orders to evacuate and some rescue workers were reportedly badly affected by volcanic gas emissions.
As May 16 rolled around, there were now some 20 fissures actively emitting lava and toxic gases on Kilauea, and yet more residents had been advised to evacuate the area. But Mother Nature was issuing her own highly visible warning – the Big Island’s column of volcanic ash had now reached an incredible altitude of 12,000 feet.
Nevertheless, the following day, this was dwarfed by a second colossal column which rose some 30,000 feet into the skies above Hawaii. Yet another crack appeared on Kilauea and a series of minor earthquakes again shook the land. Streams of lava were now flowing across forest land, on to Highway 137 and then into the Pacific.
As May drew to an end, the volcanic activity continued with extreme volatility and it was impossible for the islanders to predict what would happen next. The eruptions now began to move in a westwards direction with some Kilauea fissures quietening and others erupting again. By May 25, lava was blanketing some 2,223 square acres of land. Two days later, Hawaiian authorities put the number of damaged properties at 82.
Furthermore, the intense volcanic activity continued into June. Three days into the month, Kilauea’s lava flow had reached the Vacationland Hawaii resort and had poured into Kapoho Crater. For as long as any Big Islander could remember, there had been a body of water in the crater called Green Lake. But the intense heat now evaporated it completely and the water was replaced by lava.
Indeed, Green Lake had been a popular place with locals for swimming and was said to have been as much as 200 feet deep. Now, to the consternation of Big Island residents, it had simply disappeared. Drew Kapp, a geography teacher at Hawaii Community College, spoke to CBS-affiliated local TV channel KGMB about the loss. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I’ve never even heard of anything like that happening before.”
By now, more than a month after the eruption had started, the area of land covered by lava was approaching eight square miles. And, sadly, hundreds of homes had been destroyed, especially around Kapoho Bay where the structures had been engulfed by a molten wall of lava up to 15 feet high. Astonishingly, the bay itself then met the same fate as Green Lake, disappearing as it was filled by the encroaching lava.
Jason Hills, a regular visitor to the area, spoke to CNN about the ongoing situation. “It’s incredibly saddening,” he said. “Kapoho Bay was just a little calm-water gem where people could play, swim, hang out in the tide pools. It was green and beautiful, great trade winds, and now it’s just a big hunk of lava rock.” However, Hawaii lovers should bear in mind that Kilauea continues to rumble and further volcanic activity is impossible to read. Fans of the Big Island should wait for this natural phenomenon to finally blow over before erupting into applause for its spectacular makeover.