Volcano Watch — Viewing lava safely at Kīlauea—advice from those who do a lot of it

Release Date:

Watching lava flow across the ground surface and into the ocean can be mesmerizing and exciting-the experience of a lifetime. Don't let it be the last experience of your lifetime. Here are tips on how to return to your car unbloodied and upright.

Lava viewers usually have to trudge across bare lava flows to get to active lava. Walking on a flow is not like walking on normal ground. You're constantly stepping up and down on a glassy surface that is slippery when wet or warm. Take special care to avoid falling, stepping into cracks, or twisting an ankle or knee.

Wear long pants. Shorts should be left in the car. If you fall on glass wearing shorts, you'll cut yourself. Those who work on the new flows have too often seen lacerated legs on shorts-wearing visitors. And, remember, you can't get as close to hot lava with shorts as you can with long pants; it's amazing how much insulation a pair of jeans provides. Gloves can prevent sliced-up hands if you have even a minor fall.

Slippers (sandals to those not from Hawai`i) should be out. Instead, wear a sturdy pair of hiking boots. Slippers and sneakers fail because their flat surfaces provide far less traction than the sole and heel of a boot. And, neither slippers nor sneakers help much on very hot lava, where the soft rubber or plastic can melt on your feet, like chocolate in your mouth.

Wear a hat and sun screen. Put 2-3 liters (quarts) of water in your pack. Drink often and before you get thirsty.

If you're going to be out after dark, take one good flashlight per person, with extra batteries and bulb. We recommend an extra flashlight per group. Consider carrying a flashlight at all times, even for day trips. It might be useful if you become stranded.

The above advice may seem mundane, but most accidents on the flow field happen during the walk in or out. You can't completely avoid hiking accidents, but you can minimize them.

Around an active surface flow, watch carefully to avoid stepping on thin crust with hot lava beneath. Check the direction the flow is moving, and don't get trapped between two lava tongues. It's easy to get so entranced by lava that you lose track of what's happening behind you.

Take care around a skylight. The hole is there because the roof was too weak to support itself. Don't make the hole wider by standing on its edge. For that matter, don't stand wherever lots of heat or gas is escaping; that is a sign of a possible skylight in the making. The heat can sneak up on you; if you hear a quick sizzling sound, you've probably lost some hair.

Volcanic gas. Not too bad except for those with respiratory problems. Stay upwind, and if the wind changes, move with it. If you have asthma or something similar, stay away.

DON'T GO ON THE BENCH. It is built on loose rubble that can fail suddenly. One pilot recently saw a large bench collapse in about 6 seconds. Sea water and lava don't mix; lava heats the water to acidic steam, which can scald instantly. Water momentarily trapped below lava can burst out explosively, tossing hot rocks onto the sea cliff bounding the bench.

Signs near the bench tell people to stay away. But, like moths to a flame, some people can't resist. Often, in our experience, these are people who live on the island and who should be even more aware than visitors of the dangers. But familiarity breeds contempt. It is no coincidence that three of the four people killed at the bench lived here and that the fourth was with a resident. Always think for yourself, don't be macho, and don't follow a Pied Piper.

When we remind someone returning from the bench about the hazards, we generally get stink eye, or worse. Four people have died-evidence enough to support our concerns. It is so easy to avoid the hazards. JUST STAY OFF THE BENCH.

Volcano Activity Update

The surface flow activity on Pulama pali continued all week and provided visitors at the end of the Chain of Craters road in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park with a spectacular view. Lava travels in a tube system from the vent at Pu`u `O`o to the top of Pulama pali, then breaks out of the tube and cascades down the pali. Two separate breakouts from the tube system at the 1,900-foot and 1,200-foot elevations feed the surface flows. The lower breakout supplies two open channels of lava pouring down the east side of the pali. Lava continues to pool at the base of the pali with no significant movement toward the sea coast which is 2 km (1.2 mi) away.

One earthquake was reported felt during the week ending on January 4. A resident of Leilani Estates subdivision reported feeling an earthquake at 5:19 a.m. on the morning of January 1. The magnitude-2.0 earthquake was located at a shallow depth near Pu`ulena Crater.