Vuncanology – time to nerd out!

I thought that a Vulcanologist studied Mister Spock and other Vulcans until I went to Hawaii and learned that Vulcanology (also spelled Volcanology) is the study of Volcanoes!

So lets geek out, not on Star Trek, but on one of my other nerdy passions – geology – rock on! Do follow the links too – it took me a long time to write this since I kept reading off on a tangent about volcanoes and the youtube posts of other folks footage is simply fascinating – just don’t forget to come back and finish reading my post though.

Hawaii only exists because of volcanoes. The chain of islands that make up the 50th state are due to a hot-spot on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. As the earth’s mantle slides and continents drift, volcanoes go dormant and new ones are born, often producing new islands. The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands and has five separate volcanoes, so it is entirely appropriate that it has a Volcanoes National Park! Within this park one of the longest-lived eruptions in the world is taking place – Kilauea.

Unfortunately at the time of our visit the lava was flowing in an extremely hard to get to place. It required a fourteen mile round trip , hiking over sharp rocks and lumpy lava fields. This flow has at times reached the sea, giving spectacular views of steam plumes as the molten lava plunges into the ocean but upon our arrival it had not had an ocean entry since the beginning of the year. However, Pele (the Hawaiian Goddess of the Volcano) did tease us by coming within 50 meters of the coast while we were staying at Volcano (the aptly named town closest to the volcanoes). We decided that if  an ocean entry did occur we’d fork out for either the boat or helicopter trip.  Then Pele further taunted us by dipping her toes in the water – but only briefly. Without a sustained ocean entry there was no guarantee that we’d see a plume. We decided that it would be something to come back for.

Apparently the neighboring volcano – Mauna Loa, is due to erupt again soon – we vowed to come back for that!

If you have only one day to visit the volcanoes come for one of the hikes and then make sure to stay for the sunset. Make sure to get there a good hour beforehand since traffic is horrible! Kilauea is best viewed in the dark and the park is open all night. From the viewing area you cannot see the lava during the day, just the steam and gases (vog – a cross between volcano and smog) rising from the vent.

While we were there the vog closed the Crater Rim Drive

We saw lots of these signs every where – obviously the vog goes where the wind chooses to blow it. Someone really should offer Pele a tic tac!

But at night you can see the red hot lava below reflected off the vog.

It reminded me of an open wound. As we sat watching the colors changes and the red glow deepen, it was easy to see how people would believe that this was the work of a Goddess or deity who needed to be appeased.

What with Hawaii being two hours behind California time and my sparse sprinkling of little white lies when asked by my not-a-moring-person Husband what time it was when we woke up, we hit the trail at 8.30am – a phenomenal achievement for us as a couple!

The road south from the gates of the park goes all the way to the ocean. This is Chain of Craters Road, so called as there is a chain of raters and other interesting volcano-induced features to see the whole way down to sea level.


Off this road are a number of hikes and we decided to do all of them. On Anne’s (from the Rainforest Retreat) recommendation we decided to tackle the Lava tubes early.We parked at the trail head the for Kilauea Iki trail but did the trail in the reverse order to that laid out in the trail guide, thus beginning with the walk through the lava tubes.

These tubes are formed as the surface of the lava cools and crusts over, insulating the river of molten rock within which keeps on flowing. Eventually the lava flows out leaving an empty tube. These ones are large enough to walk through but can be any size.

This hike was stunning. It took us through the crater of a volcano that last erupted in 1959. The crater was already there at that stage having been formed several hundred years ago. Click this link to find out how. In November of 1959 a fissure opened in the 600ft deep pit and spewed a curtain of lava along its length forming a 360m deep lava lake within the crater.

 Imagine that all that flat lower ground in the middle was once molten lava!

The white specks are people – just to give you some perspective! Around the edges the rocks are more crumpled looking – this is because when the eruption finished the lava flowed out from underneath, cooled and contracted, and caused the surface of the lave to collapse. It is known as the bathtub ring. You can see it the next photograph looking like tarmacadam, or chocolate brownies!

 Lava is rich in minerals and plants try to get a foothold.

This small lava fern is called ‘Ae. (The Hawaiian alphabet has only twelve letters and five of them are vowels making it a nightmare for lingi-phobe like me!). This small lava fern is one of the first plants to settle into the moist cracks of the lave. It has leaf blades that twist upwards like venetian blinds. I call it the “Venetian Blind Fern”!

 The floor of the crater still had steam vents – eerie on a cool morning!

 At one end of the crater we came across a raised area with steam coming out of the top of it.

My husband wanted to climb up and look in but I was reluctant to leave the trail, being worried about the park ranger and the ecology of the crater – in that order! Against my advice my husband took off upwards, scrambling over the jagged black rocks towards the steam. Soon he was out of sight. I waited. And waited. He didn’t come back. Cursing under my breath, I followed his route up a little way but still could not see him. My concern deepened as the terrain steepened. Where the hell was he? I started to call his name…no answer. It was still early and there was no-one else around. What if he’d fallen? How would I find him? I climbed up further, my heart thumping so hard against my ribs I could nearly feel them flex to the beat. Would I find him before I began to cry?

At the top my heart stopped. There was a big crack in the earth! It was a couple of feet wide – large enough for a body to slip through…


I crept as close to the edge as my vertigo would allow. I couldn’t see the bottom – in fairness I’m a chicken with heights so I wasn’t that close- yet. I always worry about the edge of cliffs, and precipices in general giving way. I called for him again, my voice laced with the warble of tears. If he wasn’t dead already, I was going to kill him. (Obviously he wasn’t since I sure as hell didn’t take that picture!)

I edged closer to the crack preparing myself for the ordeal of climbing into it to search for him. As I stood quivering at the opening of the fissure, cursing the lack of cell phone coverage yet wondering who the hell would I call.(Certainly not the ranger since he’d probably shout at me for going off trail!) I spotted a ting figure back at ground level waving up at me. My husband had found an easy way down that left him on the opposite side from where he’d left me and had had to circumnavigate the base.

“You scared the shit out of me!” I said when I’d climbed down (the hard side not wanting to loose sight of him again.)

“I’m sorry,” he said, ducking as I swiped at him. “It was cool up there though wasn’t it?”

Let’s just say the vog turned blue until I’d calmed down.

After that we drove to sea level to the end of the Chain of Craters Road… literally the end of  the road where the lava come across the road in one of the recent eruptions, blocking the road for miles.

From here you can hike 7 miles (one way) to see some lava flowing. If you’re lucky you might see an ocean entry – best I could do was this…

The coast held a stark beauty where Pele met her sister, goddess of the sea, Nā-maka-o-Kahaʻi. 


On one of the ranger talks we attended the speaker asked the question, “What do sister’s do with each other?” 

One person answered, “Shopping!”  


I said, “Party?”


“How odd,” I thought.

But the correct answer was fight!

And the legend of the two sisters well describes the constant battle between the volcano and the ocean.  As the lava pours into the ocean the waves constantly erode it away.

 As the lava spills, pools and cools it produces some amazing textures.


Sorry Pele, but I have to say that this did remind me of one huge cow pat! 

But Pele is a woman Goddess of many talents. She has a colorful palate when she puts her mind to it.


She can even produce semiprecious stones. I found this olivine, called peridot and chrysolite when of gem-quality. It is a magnesium iron silicate with the formula (Mg,Fe)2SiO4.


I was sorely tempted to pocket this tiny rock of perhaps 1/8″ diameter, but I’d been warned not to remove any rocks from the volcano area since it would upset Pele. I reckon she could throw one helluva hissy-fit, so left it there. Ya just don’t mess with a Volcano God!

 Photos fail to capture how vast this moonscape is.


 Sometimes it is only trumped by the sky above it.


Our third hike of the day was to view the petroglyphs – pictures carved into the rocks centuries ago by native Hawaiians.


The meanings of these carving are largely unknown.

I think the one above is telling the story of the arrival of an alien space ship!


In some of the drawing you can make out people and turtles – or a combination of both.


It is believed that they recorded significant events and that the people brought a new born’s piko (umbilical cord) to the circles and that this represented connecting the child to the land. I suppose my parents must have done the Irish equivalent of dropping and losing my piko to turn me into such a global gypsy!

The forth hike of the day, Pu’u Huluhulu and Mauna Ulu, was postponed to the next day since we were so worn out from traipsing across the hard lava – it is deceptively hard going. But I wasn’t going home without doing that one – it was my volcano-twin having erupted the same year I was born – Mauna Ulu.

From the top of Pu’u Huluhulu we could look over at Mauna Ulu. Pu’u Huluhulu means hairy hill and refers to the forest growth on an old cone. This forest was not buried by an eruption and is still growing but other trees weren’t so lucky. Along the way we came across lava trees. Here the lava flowed around trees whose dampness cooled the lava before it burned up the trees resulting in these strange pipes in the rock.

 Here are two trees side by side.

The crater rim of Mauna Ulu is very delicate the trail guide asks people to refrain from climbing on it – you can be sure that I showed that information to my Husband!


In the distance we could see the cinder cone of Puʻu ʻŌʻō (pronounced Poo ew oh oh) another live volcano erupting since 1983. Heaven only knows why they haven’t built a nice visitor center and cafe closer so we can get a better look!

But at least we can always go back to the Jaggar Museum and look out in comfort at the volcano…but still there is no cafe. For a nation that spawned Starbucks why, oh why, is it so hard to get a nice cuppa in a National Park (or any park or good view for that matter) so we can sit back and take in the view in comfort?

Still, I shouldn’t gripe – it was a privilege to be a guest at Pele’s house all the same.

 Byddi Lee


Volcano on Dwellable

2 replies to Vuncanology – time to nerd out!

  1. Wow that is a very beautiful post, and funny too. I really love your style of writing, if it is not that good i wont read those long paragraphs, haha! You are lucky you got your own time. We went to Kilauea only as a post conference tour and we cannot linger around, because there is always time for something and time to leave. We have volcanoes too, but they are not as awesome as those in Hawaii. I remember having photos also on top of those very hard lava. I guess Kona coffee is so delicious, my favorite, because of the mineralized lava!

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Andrea. Yes the Kona coffee is really good – I'm preparing a complete post on the Hawaiian coffee alone! So glad to hear you also spent time in Hawaii. It is a magical place.

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