March 13, 2003
A weekly feature provided by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Viewing Hawai`i's lava safely - a reminder
The recent serious injury incurred by a visitor to the Mother's Day lava flow field prompted this article. Shortly after midnight on March 10, a tourist from France sustained first-, second- and third-degree burns when he fell onto the hot lava flow. Up to 8 percent of his body was burned, primarily his hands, right forearm, and right thigh. At last report he was listed in fair condition but still confined to the hospital burn unit.
Here are some tips that will help make your next lava-viewing trip a safe one. First, come prepared. To see molten lava, you will probably have to walk over fresh lava flows with their uneven, glassy surfaces - often very hot. You must wear sturdy, closed-toe boots or shoes. Rubber slippers, sandals, and even sneakers will not do. They provide poor traction, allow sharp rocks to get under your foot, and worst of all, they can melt.
Definitely wear long pants and not shorts. The first time your leg brushes against sharp lava, you'll appreciate this advice. Also wear gloves, your ordinary, leather-palmed, gardening variety, while hiking out to the active flow. The most common injuries treated by the National Park rangers on eruption duty at the end of the Chain of Craters road are minor lacerations to the legs and hands.
Bring two to three liters (quarts) of water and drink it often. Air temperatures are very high near lava flows, and dehydration can occur quickly. During the day, wear a hat and sunscreen. If you plan to be there at night when viewing is best, be sure to have at least one flashlight per person, with extra batteries and bulb. If you forget any of the items in this paragraph, don't despair, for the Volcano House has a concession at the end of the road, where you can find the items that you forgot.
Now that you are aware of how to be logistically prepared, the next thing you need to know are the hazards that you may encounter while viewing a live lava flow. If the lava is entering the ocean, the resulting steam plume is very bad. It is highly acidic and contains tiny glass particles that love to imbed themselves in your nasal passages and eyes. And if you get too close, it can also sear your lungs. Avoid the steam plume at all times.
The new land that is formed by the lava entering the ocean is very unstable. It can break apart with explosive force, hurling rocks in all directions, and sink quickly. It is tempting to go out on this lava delta to be close to the activity, but four known fatalities have occurred in this setting. It is not worth risking your life. The new sand beaches are also unstable and dangerous. The boundary of the safe zone is marked by ropes and signs established by the National Park Service. Do not go beyond them.
Another hazard is present when lava flows enter vegetated areas. Trapped methane gas can ignite with explosive force near the leading edge of the flow. Stay clear of any vegetated areas close to an active flow. The safest spot, although perhaps very hot, would be on a cooled and hardened section of the active flow or on a recent flow.
Now that you are aware of the natural hazards, the next thing to do is to get the latest information on flow activity. The best source is the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory's web site (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/multimedia/main.html). The site is updated daily from early-morning observations and may be updated during the day if conditions warrant.
The Kilauea Visitor Center is another source of lava flow information. Additionally, a short video on viewing lava safely is shown every 30 minutes in the auditorium.
At the end of the Chain of Craters road, Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park personnel are at the visitor booth throughout the day and into the night. They mark trails with yellow reflectors out to the best lava-viewing sites and will point you in the right direction. They are also the source of "WE CARE" cut kits containing moist wipes, band-aids, and paper towels to treat minor cuts and scrapes.
When you are properly dressed, equipped and informed, you are ready to join the 2,000 other visitors who trek slowly over the uneven terrain out to the active flow, following the yellow reflector trail markers. Watching lava flow across the ground surface can be mesmerizing and exciting - the experience of a lifetime. And it can be done safely.
Eruptive activity at the Pu`u `O`o vent of Kilauea Volcano continued unabated during the past week. Scattered surface breakouts from the western "Kohola" lobe of the Mother's Day flow are seen throughout the inflating flow. The finger of lava that was poised to enter the ocean last week, stalled and solidified before making it over the sea cliff. The West Highcastle delta, supplied by the main Mother's Day tube system, is the site of the only ocean entry.
Two earthquakes were reported felt during the past week. A resident of Volcano felt an earthquake at 10:14 p.m. on March 6. The magnitude-1.7 event was located 1 km (0.6 mi) east of Volcano at a depth of 3 km (1.8 mi). At 10:24 a.m. on March 11, a resident of Hilo felt the earth move. The magnitude-3.1 temblor was located 9 km (5.4 mi) west of the summit of Kilauea Volcano at a depth of 11 km (6.6 mi).
Mauna Loa is not erupting. The summit region continues to inflate, and the rate of inflation has increased slightly during the past month. The earthquake activity is low, with only one earthquake located in the summit area during the last seven days.
Updated: March 19, 2003 (pnf)