HAWAI‘I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK >>
The view from the Jaggar Museum Overlook revealed the gaping maw of Halemaumau Crater, which has doubled in size over the past two months. Wisps of volcanic gases floated skyward from small vents in the crater floor, and white ash covered the barren landscape for miles around.
Fresh, jagged cracks were evident in the overlook’s lava rock walls and the bare patches of ground around the parking lot and walkways, a result of regular explosions that are occurring at the crater at roughly 24-hour intervals.
As awe-inspiring a sight as it was, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park Acting Superintendent Rhonda Loh had focused her attention on the far eastern side of the Kilauea caldera, where a half-dozen white birds, barely visible at that distance, swooped in low, wide circles over the smoldering rocks.
|PHOTO GALLERY: Tour of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, June 28|
Although sea-foragers, the koae kea — white-tailed tropicbirds — nest in crevices in the caldera, oblivious to the massive changes transforming the Kilauea summit in ways not seen in modern times.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Loh said. “It’s a great story of resilience. Obviously, they can manage living up here.”
Loh and other park officials are hoping HVNP, most of which has been closed since May 11, will show some of the same resilience and once again welcome visitors to what is arguably Hawaii’s most significant geologic and cultural landmark.
With daily earthquakes and ongoing safety hazards, Loh said it’s too early to fully assess the damage and start planning repairs that would allow visitors to return.
“We’re really waiting to hear from the scientists from the (U.S. Geological Survey) about when conditions have changed to the point that we can look at recovery and what will need to be done to be able to reopen the park safely,” she said.
“It’s a huge unknown.”
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HVNP welcomed 2 million visitors last year, collecting $21,000 a day in entrance fees, 80 percent of which is returned to enhance visitor services at the park, Loh said.
What’s different about this most recent Kilauea eruption, she said, is that it’s occurring in highly visited areas, whereas past events have been in more remote locations.
Earthquakes and other volcanic forces have fractured park roadways and snapped waterlines. At least three buildings have been damaged, including Jaggar Museum, whose artifacts, exhibits and archives were moved by park staff for safekeeping June 19.
Adjacent to the museum is the USGS’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which was evacuated after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck May 4.
“We’re keeping in close contact with the USGS, and as the seismic activity subsides, we hope to be able to bring a structural engineer into the building,” Loh said. “At this point we’re waiting for things to mellow out a little more.”
While HVNP’s summit region is closed, its 116,000-acre Kahuku Unit is open for hiking and other activities from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Park rangers also have been stationed at the Volcano Art Center in Volcano village, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center on the Hilo Bayfront, the Hilo airport and other spots to provide information and answer visitors’ questions.
Thursday’s tour of the summit region was the first time the news media was granted access to the heart of the Kilauea volcano, which began erupting anew May 3 along the lower East Rift Zone in Puna, where nearly 700 homes have been destroyed by lava.
Considering the impact on those who lost homes or have been displaced by the eruption, HVO scientist-in-charge Tina Neal called the recent events at the summit “bittersweet” while talking to reporters at Waldron Ledge, which offered a different view of Halemaumau.
“Change is what volcanoes do, and despite there being this profound sense of loss going on with the partial closure of the park and the destruction in Puna, it also, for our scientists, is a very inspirational time because of that change.”
Neal said her office at HVO was closest to the crater’s lava lake, and she has found the progression of the summit eruption “on a personal level pretty mind-blowing.”
“There’s a mixture of sadness and loss, and awe and challenge,” she said. “The challenge to figure out what’s going on and, perhaps more important, what’s going to happen is epic. This is, in large part, what volcanologists are born to do.”
Consider USGS research geophysicist Kyle Anderson’s mind also blown. As someone who studies ground deformation, “I’m used to looking at changes on the order of centimeters,” he said. “Here the scale is tens of feet per day. … The scale is just staggering.”
He said the explosive eruptions at the summit “are a scientific opportunity that is unrivaled.”
Halemaumau Crater has been slumping in some spots as much as 30 feet or more per day, he said, as magma from the summit reservoir is exiting at a rapid rate toward the East Rift Zone.
This process is increasing Halemaumau’s volume at a rate of 10 million cubic meters per day — “an enormous number that is hard to conceptualize.”
That’s roughly the same as 4,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Other measurements show the crater floor has dropped to a point 400 meters below its previous level, Anderson said.
Scientists are still focusing their activity on the emergency response to the eruption, advising civil defense agencies on hazards risks to the public, and haven’t had much of a chance to analyze the data they’ve been collecting, he said.
But there will be time for that later.
“I think people will be talking about this and writing about this for generations to come,” he said.
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