Kilauea Volcano's Spectacular Eruptions Attract Visitors

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Reed Travel Features

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK -- Kilauea Volcano made headlines in the first eight months of the year, its eruption taking dramatic turns. By September, it had settled down to its familiar routine of most of this decade -- lava flowing seven miles, usually underground, from Pu'u O'o Crater, the hot spot, to the sea.

As before, several thousand visitors a day take a sightseeing tour or drive the 50-mile roundtrip from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park headquarters to the viewing area and ranger station. They see in the distance the steam clouds produced by lava spilling into the ocean.

The following were the high points of the year:

* In late January, 50-foot-high lava fountains occurred for two days. This was something not seen since the early days of the Kilauea's current eruption, the longest eruption in recorded history, which began in January 1983.

* Then, for almost a month, there was no eruption activity, until crater glows were seen again.

* In August, a spectacular lava flow covered Wahaula Heiau, an 800-year-old Hawaiian temple with five-foot-high walls near the sea.

Two flows, following underground tube systems, now enter the sea, four miles from the viewing area. Last year, lava had entered the sea a mile away. From the viewing area, steam from lava hitting the sea is usually seen. Surface flows are seldom seen during the day but occasionally can be seen glowing at night.

Pu'u O'o, a 700-foot-high crater, is just outside the boundary of the 230,000-acre national park, 10 miles from park headquarters in a desolate wilderness that it has helped to create. Park headquarters, a 40-minute drive from Hilo, is in a rain forest on the edge of Kilauea Crater, 4,000-feet above sea level and encircled by an 11-mile road. The park, a 45-minute drive from Hilo, gets more than 2 million visitors a year. Most visitors -- and probably most sightseeing tours -- do not venture down the Chain of Craters Road to the lookout. There are no facilities along the 50-mile roundtrip drive, and there is enough to see and do in one day at the park's central area.

For almost 15 years, all eruption activity has been east of park headquarters and the Chain of Craters Road (Kilauea Crater itself last erupted in 1982 -- twice, and each time for less than 24 hours). This year's show began in early January with minor earthquakes and the shifting of the magma under Kilauea's summit. Magma drained from Pu'u O'o, and by late January the fountains appeared along a two-mile front at Napau Crater, a few miles from Pu'u O'o.

It was at Napau where the eruption began, with fountains, in January 1983 before moving to Pu'u O'o. Then it was quiet, for most of February. Local newspapers reported clear skies, and an end to the "vog" -- haze resulting from lava entering the ocean that can plague both the Hilo and Kona sides of the island, depending on the winds.

However, scientists learned long ago to avoid predicting the end of the eruption as most years have seen days, even weeks, of inactivity before the volcano came to life again. By late February, they were reporting glows inside Pu'u O'o, and a month later, various underground flows. Later, surface flows began, and by July were threatening the last 20 homes (only two remained occupied) of Royal Gardens, a subdivision on the slopes.

On Aug. 11, one flow covered Wahaula Heiau, once believed to have been used for human sacrifice. (Flows in 1989 and 1990 encircled the heiau and destroyed a nearby park visitor center). Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays' hotel tour desks on the island reported twice as many volcano helicopter tours as normal during August.

Since 1983, lava has covered much of an area spreading along seven miles of coastline, from near the current lookout to the small town of Kalapana in the east, destroyed by flows in 1990. Between 1983 and 1990 more than 300 homes were destroyed in Royal Gardens and Kalapana.

Occasionally, huge chunks of new but unstable coastline formed by the lava fall into the sea. It happened twice last year -- 5.7 acres of lava fell in May and the most recent, 26 acres and the largest ever, last December. In May 1993, when many went to a restricted area for night viewing, one man was lost at sea and 16 others were treated for burns and lacerations when half an acre of lava broke off.

For further information on Kilauea Crater, call the park service at (808) 985-6000. Callers can press "1" to hear a recorded update on volcano activity and weather conditions.

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