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Viewing Lava Safely—
Common Sense is Not Enough!

February 28: Note the update following the fourth paragraph regarding the cause of death of the two hikers.

Lava entering the sea along Kilauea's shoreline draws people to Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. They want to watch new land form and experience the remarkable interaction of lava and water. Beautiful and stunning, this interplay can be viewed safely from a distance but is dangerous to anyone who ventures too near a place where lava enters water. Unstable benches of land build outward from the sea cliff and collapse frequently into the ocean, triggering dangerous explosions and sending hot waves on shore. During moderate or high seas, waves often throw scalding-hot water far across the low bench.

Sketch of an explosion caused by collapse of new land, Kilauea Volcano, Hawai`i

If you intend to view lava entering the ocean in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, information presented in a new USGS-NPS fact sheet can help prevent injury and save your life.

A brand new fact sheet prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service helps visitors understand this dramatic and unpredictable activity. Visitors can find themselves in danger if they lack knowledge of the landscape along the shoreline and the processes that form it, or if they choose to ignore that knowledge.

One of these two situations may have led to the deaths of two people on November 3, 2000. According to a press release from the National Park Service, two hikers (a 41-year-old woman from Volcano and a 42-year-old man from Washington, DC) were found dead on November 5, above the sea cliff about 200 m from where lava was entering the ocean. They had severe burns as well as cuts and abrasions on their hands and knees.

The Park Service is investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident, and autopsies have been conducted.  A Park Service press release reports that the autopsies have "ruled out death by violence or trauma." It will be some time before the coroner issues a final report. When the cause has been determined and the Park Service issues its final report, this page will be updated.

Update: Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park yesterday received the autopsy report for the two fatalities. According to the Park's press release, "the medical examiner determined that the immediate cause of both deaths was 'Environmental Exposure'. In the opinion of the medical examiner...the two 'died as a result of pulmonary edema caused by inhalation of steam sustained when exposed to a steam plume.'" The press release quotes the Park Superintendent, "There has, and there might always be speculation as to the circumstances that preceded their death, and the truth is we will never ever really know."

This report makes the following scenario seem all the more reasonable.

In the meantime, a possible scenario is that the two people were on the bench and were burned by, and possibly inhaled, scalding-hot water or acid-laced steam. Clothing was not burned sufficiently to indicate that either victim fell into molten lava. There is no evidence of any other hot material in the area except for hot water and steam, which are found only on or immediately adjacent to the bench, not on the sea cliff above the bench. Hydrochloric acid is present in hot steam on the bench, potentially in high concentration.

Over the years there has been considerable and ongoing publicity about the dangers of an entry bench. Two people have previously died on a bench, one during a collapse and another after falling while attempting to climb onto the bench. Neither body was recovered. Despite these fatalities, numerous written and forceful oral warnings by the Park Service, signs and posters in the field, information on this web site, and weekly pleas in our Volcano Watch column, a few visitors persist in risking their lives.

We don't know for certain if the latest two victims were on the bench when they received their fatal injuries. But we use this terrible tragedy to once again remind all prospective visitors to the lava entry. STAY OFF THE BENCH.

For information about the potentially dangerous activity where lava enters the sea, see the following online sources, the first of which is the new USGS-NPS fact sheet:

Pahoehoe toe and sluggish lava flow around Pulama pali

Pahoehoe toe advances over ancient Hawaiian foot path
Pahoehoe toe advances over an ancient Hawaiian foot path at the base of Pulama pali. At this location, the footpath is built atop an `a`a flow that geologists estimate was erupted at least 1,500 years ago.
Sluggish lava flow on the Pulama pali
Sluggish lava flow spreads from the base of Pulama pali (background), burning vegetation sandwiched between flows emplaced in 1985 and 1992. As new lava continued to feed the leading edge of flow, the trailing surface inflated by several meters.

 

More Volcano Information from HVO and Beyond

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Updated: 9 April 2001 (SRB)
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