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August 02, 2006

Blog on Vacation

Jarah_1 I meant to take a vacation from blogging but, instead, am blogging on vacation.  Reason is that I’m awestruck by the live volcano here on the island of Hawaii – otherwise known as the Big Island.  Another reason is that the cottage we rented in the village of Volcano at the entrance to the National Park is in range of an open WiFi connection.


The picture on top is of son Jarah.  The lava flowing into the sea behind him is 100 feet below us (according to the GPS on my watch) and about 150 feet away horizontally.  We hiked 3.5 miles over a recently cooled lava flow to get to this vantage point. Part of the way there was live lava flowing through tubes below us.  Sulfurous smoke leaked from holes; hydrochloric acid enhanced clouds blew over us from the lava-sea battle ahead. Timed the hike to get there just before dark so we could see the battle in full darkness.


Pictures are from my cellphone because we keep forgetting the camera.  Otherwise might have been able to show you the true clash of titans.  Sample round:  a cascade of lava bursts from a rock protruding over the beach.  Wave slaps a wall of water to quench it.  Mighty burst of steam. Wave retreats. Lava glows and flows triumphantly.


Round two: Wave snatches glowing rock from beneath the lavafall.  Some explodes instantly into black sand.  Larger shards of pumice still glowing as they ride the curl of the next wave back to shore (pumice is a very light rock because it’s full of air holes).


Round three:  Lava bursts though top of rock near sea, subsides leaving a hole.  Wave rushes over rock pouring into hole.  Water instantly vaporizes and rock explodes into a fountain of fragments.


The_battle This is a fight the Big Island is winning.  Since it is positioned over the mid-Pacific hole in the earth’s crust from which the magma rises, the island (actually the top of mountains higher than Everest if you measure from the sea floor) adds hundreds of acres per year to its coast wherever the lava happens to be running into the sea.  A new mountain is rising east of here.  It’s still underwater but should join the Big Island in a few hundred thousand years.


Like all good titanic battles, this one goes back and forth.  Just before we came, ten acres of new land fell into the sea.  Jarah and I were the beneficiaries of the collapse; the lava we watched clash with the waves was so relatively accessible because the shelf had cracked off and freed it to flow under the cliff he is sitting on.


In geologic time the sea takes back Pele’s (she’s the bad-tempered volcano goddess) gain.  We started this trip on the Island of Kauai for the wedding of nephew Than and the lovely Merissa.  Kauai formed over the same vent millions of years ago before drifting westward.  It’s now much smaller than Hawaii and shrinking steadily.  Its mountain is impressive but diminished although it boasts daily triple rainbows. 


The hike back out from the sea in the darkness was much harder, especially for me.  I trip even when I can see where I’m putting my feet and our flashlights were intermittent even though we brought three plus spare batteries (I ALWAYS have a Plan B). Jarah picked a pretty good trail for me in the intermittent light from a setting quarter moon.


Psuedopod Some marketing person named this a “user-friendly” volcano; she was right.  Earlier in the day Mary, Jarah, and I hiked into the lava field from the other side in search of surface flows.  We found ‘em.  I was standing about three feet from this psuedopod of lava when I took its picture.  You should be able to see that it is glowing red at the bottom edge.  What you can’t see is that it is oozing forward.


A glassy substance cools first on the surface of each flow.  The glass cracks as it cools so you are as likely to find a live flow by the tinkle as by the heat or the smell. Walking over recent flows sounds like walking on broken glass but the footing is solid if irregular.


First thing we did when we got to the island was take a helicopter tour of the most recent eruption, the lava field, and the flow into the sea.  That gave us a good overview of what we would see and had a spectacular view into a lava cauldron in the small caldera which is the source of the current eruption.


Because of the chemical makeup of the magma, these are shield (gently-sloping) volcanoes rather than towering peaks like Mt. St. Helens was.  The eruptions are less spectacular; the damage is usually done by lava flows rather than blasts.  The lava bubbles up, flows downhill towards the sea, cools and solidifies on the surface, and continues to flow under the surface in the insulated tubes which form with occasional surface breakouts.  Continues until some subterranean event ends, then resumes at a new place and time of Pele’s choosing – usually with a warning telegraphed to seismometers.


All the shapes of the battle between the land and the sea are fractals.  Maybe that’s why I like it enough to blog on vacation.

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