Lava lake the star of Volcanoes National Park light show

By Shane Nelson
InsightTravelers bound for the Big Island in the coming weeks might want to set aside some time for an after-sundown visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

A lava lake beneath the surface of Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater, nearest to the park’s Jaggar Museum overlook, has put on an attention-grabbing display in recent weeks, lighting up the plume of gas billowing out of a large vent in the crater floor.

Although lava isn’t yet visible from the park’s overlooks, the molten lake beneath the crater’s rocky floor rose to its highest levels last month since first forming in an eruption during spring 2008.

Kilauea Halemaumau Crater“Last Thursday was the closest it’s ever been to the surface,” Cindy Orlando, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park superintendent, said during an Oct. 29 interview. “The glow produced by the lava has fluctuated in terms of its intensity, and we’ve enjoyed the view ever since the vent opened up in 2008, but this is the most intense the nighttime glow has ever been.”

According to Orlando, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory estimate the lava lake rose to within about 90 feet of the crater floor late in October and believe the molten lava would be visible from the park’s overlooks, through the vent opened in 2008, around 65 feet from the surface.

“We’re waiting for the lava to spill over onto the crater floor; that’s definitely what we’re all hoping for,” Orlando said, noting that lava was last visible in Halemaumau Crater briefly in 1982 but put on an explosive, enduring performance in 1974 that covered the crater floor. “So it’s happened, but it doesn’t occur very often, and something like that this time around would be great, because people could view it safely from the overlook at Jaggar Museum, and it would just be an awesome experience for visitors.”

In the meantime, Orlando said the lava lake’s glow through the vent, not generally visible during the day but “terrific” after dark, has been attracting an increasing number of observers.

“It’s been extremely busy up at Jaggar Museum, which is where you can best view the vent,” she continued. “I was there last Saturday at around 9 p.m., and it was just mobbed.”

Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park cools off quite a bit in the evenings. For visitors headed to the overlooks for vent viewing at night, Orlando recommends dressing warmly, bringing a flashlight and paying close attention to marked pathways and parking areas.

“The park is a special place not only for its geology but also the biology,” she said. “So we want visitors to be cautious of nene [Hawaii’s endangered state bird] crossing the roads, and we ask them to stay on marked trails and not to park off road either, because we have endangered plants, archaeological sites and a number of nene nesting sites.”

At the USGS website, visitors can also check out frequently updated images from USGS webcams overlooking the Halemaumau Crater vent and other geologically active Big Island sites.
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