Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The volcano that never stops

Double rainbow on Kilauea, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Kilauea, Hawaii
The Hawaiian islands were born by the union of the Sky Father Wakea with the Earth Mother Papa. As such they are the abode of the gods of hawaiian mythology. Two of these gods, however, never got along very well. Pele, the goddess of fire, and Kamapua'a, the god of rain, kept fighting memorable battles all the time. The theatre of the most epic of these battle is the crater of Halema'uma'u, where Pele found refuge when the rain god tried to extinguish the lava that she made sprout from the ground. To force her to out, Kamapua'a covered the crater with fern fronds, trapping of the smoke and choking Pele in her hiding place. Mad for the affront, Pele threatened to destroy the whole island. At that point the other gods were forced to intervene, dividing the island among the quarreling deities. Kamapua'a got the northern side of the island, rich in moisture carried by the trade winds. Pele was confined to the south-eastern side, the dry domain of the volcanoes.

The domain of Pele is dominated by one of the most active volcanoes on Earth: the Kilaueua. This volcano has been continuously activity for most of the islands recorded history. Even before, Hawaiian oral histories testify about Kilauea random acts of violence, like the eruption of 1790, when the present-day caldera was formed, as the ground collapsed under the feet of Keouha Kuahu'ula warriors, the last to resist the unifying forces of Kamehameha I, the great. Since then Kilauea has had at least 61 recorded eruptions.

Kilauea, Hawaii
The volcano is part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and is one of the most monitored volcanoes on Earth. In fact, it was the first volcano to be monitored, by initiative of Thomas Jaggar. The MIT geologist, after witnessing the destruction caused by the earthquake in Messina (near Mount Etna) decided that a network of observatories monitoring the activity of volcanoes was absolutely required. He chose Kilauea because of its high activity and the relative benign nature of its eruptions. The fact that the eruptions are benign does not mean that they are not impressive, though. In 1819 a huge lava flow filled the caldera in the photo above, creating an enormous lava lake. In other occasions the activity was so strong that reportedly allowed the inhabitants of Hilo (20 miles away) to read at night without the need of other lights!

The Volcanoes Park and Kilauea today are a big touristic attraction. If you go there at sunset you can see the lava flow dropping in the sea (panoramic below). From the parking lot it is a short hike on a pitch-black moonscape terrain until the rope that delimit the "safe" area from the places where the fresh lava is still warm. The park ranger discourage you from hiking beyond the ropes, but people still do... which leads to the inevitable casualties, mainly tourists that walk too close to the volcanic vents, their lungs swelled by the deadly inhalation of hydrochloric acid. That said, if you are careful, Kilauea is one of the most spectacular places in the world to visit!

Kilauea, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

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