Sunday, June 27, 2010

Crossing the Ka'u Desert

I am trying to look epic as a look back across the desert

I am slowly making my way through the various trails in the park. Last weekend, I trekked across the dry, hot Ka’u desert.

The 9-mile trail (one way) starts off of the highway. You technically do not have to enter the park (and pay) to access this trail. But if you want to see the entire trail and not double back, it is best to use two cars and park one at the end (inside the park), and park the other car on the highway.

About a mile in, you stumble across the fossilized footprints.

My foot in comparison to the ancient fossilized footprint.

The legend ( ) goes that King Keōua, who owned most of the Hilo side of the island set off to invade the rival tribe of Kamehameha. Rather than take the short route across a tumultuous a’a flow (which I can attest is a real pain to walk across), the group of warriors took the longer path across the desert.

An eruption at Kilauea’s summit a few miles away sent a mixture of rain and ash (muddy ash) through the desert. The warrior’s footprints were eternalized in the muddy ash deposit and clusters of prints which can still be seen throughout the desert.

Two different versions of the story say the footprints represent the warriors on their way to fight, and another version claims the footprints belong to the retreating Keōua tribe.

A later study by an HVO geologist showed that the footprints were smaller than what one would expect for warriors. Instead, they most likely belonged to women and children.

My roommate climbed up the full 5 foot hornito.

In addition to the footprints, a myriad of cool volcanic features paint the desert lan

dscape. Highlights included a hornito - a dome or raised ball created above a lava tube.

This feature is formed from a spot of degassing. The raised gases break through an underlying lava tube, carrying lava splatter with it. The end form is this neat updomed feature, that once solidified is awesome to climb on.

We also saw two huge pit craters. These are formed when a lava tube collapses or the ground above a magma chamber falls in. The twin craters appeared out of nowhere. A peak down into the craters revealed that the walls are covered in bird nests.

The twin pit craters sitting in the middle of the desert.

Half-way through the hike, the winds carried a few puffs of weak plume. The levels were not high enough to warrant a gas mask, but the bitter taste lingered in our mouth for a few miles.

Despite the lingering plume cloud, I give this hike five stars. In addition to the beautiful views and stunning geology, the trail is generally devoid of people. It makes for a peaceful walk to fully appreciate the natural beauty.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Adventures with the Big Blue Wet Thing: Part 2

I’m in love with the ocean. I just want to put that out there. The past two weekends, my housemates and I visited the beaches along the Hilo side of the island and went snorkeling.

Two weekends ago, I ventured to Onekahakaha beach park. This state beach is a short 5 minute drive from downtown Hilo out towards the airport. Like most of the beaches here, it is less a “beach” and more tidal pools and waterfronts surrounded by old lava flows.

Using the grungy, but free snorkeling gear we snagged from the volunteer house, we braved the water. Finding a place to get in was bit tricky. Lots of the deeper entry points were lined with sensitive coral. Not wanting to disturb the colorful coral colonies, we entered at a very shallow area.

This was not class-A snorkeling. We were in maximum 4 feet of water, but it was our first time out and seeing the small colorful fishes and sea urchins was a delight.

* * *

This past weekend, in comparison, was snorkeling heaven. Using a rented car, we road tripped to the Pahoe district. This region is right of Hilo and not too far from the Kalapana lava flows.

After leafing through our vairous guidebooks, we settled on Kapoho tide pools. As a privately owned beach, you have to pay three dollars to park down by the water. But the pocket change is well worth it.

Unlike Onekahakaha beach, there was plenty of room to spread out. We found our own cove and slipped into the clear water.

Besides being roomier, the fish selection was a hundred times better than our first time snorkeling.

I saw the dozens of yellow and black long-nose butterflyfish (shown above), as well as numerous other fishes (Moorish Idol, threadfin butterflyfish, and yellow tang surgeonfish) dressed in the same colors. Guess black and yellow is in fashion.

Schools of rainbow ornate wrasse fish (or maybe it was palenose parrotfish...hard to say) swam past us too.

The ocean floor was just, if not more, mesmerizing than the fish.

The entire floor was covered in glowing periwinkle coral, algae-green coral, and this off-whitish coral. In between coral or hidden in rock crevices were tiny black sea urchins and larger red rubbery-looking sea urchins.

The snorkeling was so good, we came back on Sunday too.

*My roommate Ryan took all the photos with his super-duper underwater-venturing camera. I want one.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Adventures with the Big Blue Wet Thing: Part 1

A view of Honali'i beach. Credit: Gro Birkefeldt

Last weekend (well two weekends ago), I finally made it to the ocean. Visiting and mapping the ocean entry at the Kalapana lava flow fields does not count. This time I went into the water. I lingered on the beach. I nibbled on hot dogs fresh off the grill and drank cold beer as I watched veteran surfers catch rad waves. I had the quintessential Hawaiian weekend.

Only a 30 minute walk from Hilo Bay in downtown Hilo, Honali’i beach is a focal point for surfers. The beach is not, however, your picture-perfect white sandy beach. It is overrun with rocks. Water shoes or sandals of some kind are highly recommended.

A small stream empties into a sheltered cove, providing a nice swimming area for the folks too terrified or too cool to go surfing I.e. me. Beyond the cove, surfers line the horizon waiting for waves.

Surfing is a way of life here. You live. You eat. You surf.

Credit: Gro Birkefeldt

It is an addictive drug. Once you start, you spend you spare moments pining for that next wave.

Considering most of the volunteers I know surf, as well as the various national park staff, it seems remarkable that it took so long to get me out to the water. And I must admit, just watching surfers is mesmerizing.

Watching people wipeout is also fun.

Though I opted not to surf this time, I did go swimming. It took a few minutes to adjust to the water. And after that, it was wonderful. Just me and the lapping waves. The surfers were too far out to bother me. Even the kids ventured out farther than me. Those first 30 feet from the beach’s edge on out were all mine.

There is something so right about being at the beach at Hawaii. I plan to visit the beach many, many more times in the weeks to come.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Up, up and away!

This past friday I got a bird's eye view of the entire Kilauea volcano from the summit crater down to the coast. I got to ride along on the weekly helicopter monitoring trip. It was amazing. Beautiful. Dynamic. Dizzying. Breathtaking. The list of adjectives could go on...but I will spare you.

Above is a picture of our teeny-weeny helicopter. From far away it looked like a toy helicopter. The aircraft holds three and the pilot. It has no doors, but you are strapped it securely. You also must wear a helicopter flight suit that is flame-resistant, a helmet, boots, and gloves. Below I am modeling my snazzy helicopter suit. Those things are comfy and flattering! I was tempted to keep mine on the entire day once we returned to the observatory, but after getting a bunch of weird looks I reluctantly took it off.

As a first time helicopter rider, my fellow geology crew had to escort me on and off the helicopter each time we landed. Which was three times. A note on riding a helicopter: always cross the front of the aircraft in view of the pilot. It lessens your chance of being hacked by moving blades.

We took off at 8:30 am at a helicopter pad in the park a.k.a a flat dirt patch in a remote part of the park. Though it took 20 minutes to get there by car from the observatory, it took a whopping two minutes to fly to the observatory. A view of the observatory is shown above.

Phase one of the flight involved circling the summit crater 2-3 times. This was the first time I experienced the vehicle tipping from one side to the other. My stomach flipped. But much to my surprise and happiness, I did not fall out. Neither did my stuff. That is when I started distracting myself by taking lots and lots of pictures.

After the summit crater, we zoomed over Pu'u O'o crater. The erupting gas plume was so large that we could not see into the crater. It looked like a smoking caldron.

We flew on to the active lava flows. These are the flows I have been mapping the past couple of weeks. A quick tour from the helicopter made the area seem so small. Hard to imagine it usually takes 2-3 hours to do our routine walk. Below is a picture of the the area we normally map.

It was misting a bit during our trip. As a result, a rainbow followed us throughout the trip. Below is one shot of our colorful companion.

The most spectacular part of the trip was seeing the ocean entry. The shimmering ocean just seemed to beckon me to come hither.

After mapping the flows by air, we took a brief stop near an active margin to take a lava sample.

Then we retuned to Pu'u O'o to fix the observation webcam.

Around 10:30 am we touched down for the final time. For the rest of the day, however, I remained on cloud nine.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Camping at Napau

A view of Napau Crater from the lookout point. Historically (within Kilauea's current eruption lifetime) Napau Crater has been an accomplice to the Pu'u O'o eruptions.

Some people (smart people?) go camping on the beach in Hawaii. I, on the other hand, went to the only rainforest campsite in the Hawaii Volcano National Park this weekend: Napau (shown in the photo above). It was wet and a good chunk of the trail meandered through thick brush and spiderwebs, but the views of Napau and the neighboring craters just about made up for it.

Kilauea is a rather large volcano with pockets of activity all over the place. In addition to the Kalapana lava flow fields and the summit crater, a major area of interest is Pu’u O’o crater. When Kilauea started erupting in 1983, the initial eruptions created Pu’u O’o crater. During the initial years of the now 27-year-old eruption, lava fountains built up a cone of splatter and activity remained at Pu’u O’o. While the magma source centered underneath Pu’u O’o, often times magma creeped around and oozed out of nearby fissures. One of these fissures was 4 km away and emptied into Napau crater.

After 3 years, activity at Pu’u O’o stopped. The fickle magma source moved to another location a few km away: Kupaianaha. But by 1992, the magma had returned to it’s initial home at Pu’u O’o. And not too long after in January 1997, lava erupted out of Napau crater once again.

The second, most recent love affair with Napau crater was brief, but sweet. Only a 24 hour event, this eruption is referred to as episode 54. Flows from this episode covered 48 acres and the eruption had minor lava fountains.

A view of Pu'u O'o crater in the background. This crater is still alive, kicking, and spewing out a thick gas plume.

Napau has yet to erupt since 1997. Instead, the crater has seen a different kind of activity in recent years: foot traffic. The Napau Crater trail is 14 miles round trip. The trail starts along different lava flows (a’a and pahoehoe) from the Mount Ulu eruptions that spanned from 1969 through 1974. Mount Ulu, which means growing mountain, is a small shield volcano that is part of the greater Kilauea volcano. Shield volcanoes are gradually built up lava-thick slopes from numerous eruptions. They look like warrior shields, hence their name.

The later part of the trail (including the camping site) runs through the dense forest. As the term rain forest suggests, the place is wet and rain is frequent. I highly recommend bringing along a rain jacket, rain pants, and a rain cover for your tent. Otherwise there is a 99.9% chance you will be miserable.

*If you are planning on camping, it is important to register with the park and get a camping permit.

A view of old lava flows. Pahoehoe flows are in the foreground and a wall of menacing a'a flows line the background.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Thurston Lava Tube

I am standing with my arms fully extended above me to emphasize the height of the Thurston Lava Tube.

The recent activity at the East Rift Zone has been a bit abnormal. When a young lava flow breaks out, it will either die out within a couple days to weeks or it will continue in the same general direction long enough for a lava tube to form. Lava tubes are tunnels of lava built out of a thick lava flow. The upper layer of the lava flow is exposed to the cool air and solidifies. Meanwhile, underneath the solidified ceiling, hot lava continues to flow, well, at least as lava keeps a-coming.

The Kilauea current flow, however, keeps changing directions with breakouts all over the place. As someone at work said, “it is a bit disorganized.” As a result, a thick lava tube has not yet formed.

Lava tubes can grow to be several meters high. A good example of this can be seen at the Thurston Lava Tube within the National Park. This approximately 400 years old lava tube has ceilings up to 9 meters or 30 feet high. The ancient lava tube was discovered in 1913 by Lorrin Thurston, a newspaper publisher. Located across from the start of the Kilauea Iki trail, the lava tube consists of two parts. I visited the tube this weekend as part of my self-tour around the National Park.

The first part of the tube is well lit. The dark cave glows an eerie red as you walk deeper into the tube. This part is generally littered with tourists which generally nixes the whole fear factor.

A view into the lit section of the Thurston Lava Tube.

The second part is dark. Only true explorers like myself venture into this latter tube. The only way to successfully conquer this cave (at least uninjured, since the footing is uneven at places) is with a personal flashlight or the force. I opted for a headlamp. Extending twice as far as the lit cave, I must admit that my nerves wavered at points (especially when my roommate started talking about ghosts). Occasional dripping water and the decreasing height of the dark, rocky ceiling upped the spookiness. To reach the very end, my roommate and I had to crawl on our hands and knees to reach the final wall (see the picture below).

I am crouched down a few meters from the back wall. I made it!

Maybe if the Kilauealava flows get their act together, they will form an epic lava tube like Thurston. But until now, the flows will continue moving in disarray (and thus, keep prompting me to visit the field).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Little Kilauea

A view of Kilauea Iki Crater from the a lookout near the start of the trail. Kilauea's current summit eruption plume can be seen wafting up into the atmosphere in the background.

Separated by a small forest, Kilauea Iki Crater, affectionately nicknamed “Little Kilauea,” sits to the east of Kilauea volcano’s main caldera. Slightly less than one third the size of Kilauea’s main caldera, this currently inactive crater was the sight of sky-scraper high lava fountains and an eye-soar of an eruption in 1959. This was also the destination of my Sunday hike, another hike merely minutes from my house.

At noon, my housemate and I set out under a cloudless blue sky to adventure down the Kilauea Iki trail. A relatively short hike, the 4 mile trail loops along the rim of the caldera, weaves down into the forest, and traverses the bare bottom of the crater before returning up a rather stressfully steep stretch back to the crater rim.

The Historical Eruption:

A blanket of lava sweeps down Kilauea Iki Crater's southern wall. Taken around 2.5 hours after the eruption started, this photo captures the fire-y intensity of the brief but concentrated eruption. Courtesy of USGS.

For three months leading up to the Little Kilauea 1959 eruption, swarms of earthquakes and tremors shook the area. On November 14 at 8:08 pm the eruption began: a fissure of lava broke through the crater’s southern wall. As the fissures extended, cascades of lava poured down the wall, creating a burning, blazing blanket of lava. In addition to the molten falls, the night scene was lit by lava fountains up as high as 30 meters (or 100 feet) into the air.

At the bottom of the crater, lava ponded. Covering and devouring the trees and shrubs that had decorated the crater floor, the lava lake extended 8 meters deep by November 16. At points the flows extended across the vegetated landscape as a molten river (think white water rapids except red and hellishly hot; not something I would personally want to kayak down). Additionally, fountains continued to extend their reach towards the sky with heights up to 80 meters (or roughly 262 feet, almost half the size of the Washington Monument) by November 17.

Around the base of the lava fountaining, a cinder cone grew comprised of the fallen bits of lava spit up by the fountain. This cone was later named Pu’a Pua’i or gushing hill. On November 19 the lava fountain reached it’s maximum height of 350 meters (or 1,148 feet; this is way bigger than the Washington Monument. We are talking almost Empire State Building height!) As the lava fountain height increased, so did the lava lake levels which reached a depth of 98 meters by November 21.

In the initial seven-day eruption, approximately 31 million meters cubed of lava erupted into Kilauea Iki crater. Following this week-long eruption were sixteen episodes between November 26 and December 20, 1959. Days before Christmas, the eruption ended (hopefully giving the hard-worked geologists a well deserved winter vacation).

A view from the path before I set out across the barren crater floor. During the heyday of the eruption, a lava lake around 98 meters in depth covered up this now rocky, dusty floor.

For more information about the actual Kilauea Iki trail, check out this nifty Kilauea trail guide created by the Hawaii National Park. And if my abridged eruption summary got you all fired up and wanting more, you can read the detailed day-by-day eruption description, compliments of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, here.