Kilauea, one of the shield volcanoes inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, has been active continuously since 1983. But in the last few weeks, the fulminating vent has been particularly awesome, sending molten lava gushing into the Pacific and creating huge clouds of gas in the process.
National Park Service video footage from earlier this month captured what one park ranger described as a “firehose” of lava literally pouring from cliffs of hardened lava rock into the sea. Before that, on December 31, a 26-acre chunk of lava rock named Kamokuna collapsed into the ocean as well, prompting a huge explosion and splattering lava everywhere. And Kilauea doesn’t appear to be done yet; riveting Facebook videos from volcano tour outfitter EpicLava showed molten lava and smoke clouds as recently as this week.
The Kamokuna feature was technically a “delta,” a swath of rocky terrain formed by cooled lava. For months prior to the collapse, the delta had been open to hikers for up-close viewings of where the flowing lava met the sea—what rangers refer to as “ocean entry.” An article on LiveScience indicated that on New Year’s Eve Day, rangers were able to cordon off the area before the theatrics began and no one was hurt.
Still, according to a statement from the Park Service, the Kamokuna collapse destroyed a public viewing area and created massive toxic ash plumes that grounded local flights for a few hours. Park spokespeople also reported loud cracks heard throughout the area for days following the event.
Although these types of volcanic episodes are spectacular to witness in person, they also can be very dangerous. Volcanic rock is unstable, and rock that collapses into the ocean can create sizeable waves—waves that may present a threat to the regular boat tours that take visitors within 30 yards of the flows. What’s more, when molten lava hits the ocean, it releases hydrochloric acid and volcanic particles that can irritate lungs and eyes. On Hawaii Island, locals call the resulting haze “vog,” a play on the word “fog.”
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.