The Road to Pele + VIDEO

Rattle and ruin on the island next door

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Of the twenty-seven fissures that have opened in Puna since eruptions began on May 3, Fissure 8 has been the most active. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, its lava fountains have formed a 180-foot-tall cinder cone—so far.

The magma currently rising to the surface in the Leilani subdivision was once held at and under the 4,000-foot summit of Kīlauea, many miles away, and also inside and under the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō cinder cone, roughly ten miles below the summit. Since 2008, millions of people have visited Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park to marvel at a black-and-gold lava lake shifting and shimmering inside of Halema‘uma‘u Crater, a mere two miles from the public observation deck outside of Jaggar Museum, named for twentieth-century volcanologist Thomas A. Jaggar. But volcanoes are living things, with moods and cycles, and Kīlauea shifted its mood abruptly in May. The magma held in Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō and at the summit drained, rapidly. The summit began deflating (imagine a vast soufflé collapsing in slow, slow motion), and that, along with the subsequent steam and ash eruptions, and constant, undulating earthquakes, triggered a swift evacuation of the national park buildings and all related offices and businesses at the summit, one office of which was mine.

Hawaii Big Island Lava Flow
Streams of gaseous lava bubble up from Fissure 20, swiftly moving east from the bottom of Leilani Estates toward the ocean.

I work for a nonprofit that partners with national parks. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is not only a partner, but was the location of our offices, our two bustling park stores (in the visitor center and in Jaggar Museum), and warehouses. As of this writing, in July, the summit caldera of Kīlauea is collapsing inexorably, fracturing the ground under the highway that passes the park entrance, and stressing the roads in nearby Volcano Village. Jaggar Museum is being slowly pulled craterward, with cracking walls and tilting floors. We fear that our offices, located in converted, classic stone-and-wood homes from the 1930s, may be too damaged to return to. Our staff is huddled in a temporary office in Hilo, our stores are opening in locations outside of the park. Meanwhile, thirty-five miles above Hilo, the continuous salvo of round-the-clock earthquakes frays the nerves of communities around the summit. Everyone is keeping a close eye on their water and electricity connections. Some are thinking it may be time to leave.

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