5 June 2013

Benchmarking Time: Kilauea Caldera and Kilauea Iki, Hawaii

Posted by Jessica Ball

Buffalo is actually a lovely place to be in the summer even though it’s feeling very summerlike right now. But I wouldn’t pass up another chance to revisit the Big Island, because it’s a fantastic place to be at any time of the year. One of my favorite parts of the island, aside from the malasada shops, is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Bet you couldn’t see that one coming!) I’ve been lucky enough to go there three times – once with William & Mary’s regional geology course, once with UH Hilo’s volcanology field course, and once with my parents for vacation. I loved showing my parents the park, since I’d been there with the William & Mary crowd the year before, and because I was finally getting a chance to show them what a volcano is really like.

We didn’t do a huge amount of hiking, out of deference to giving my parents a chance to enjoy their vacation rather than get utterly worn out, but we did make the drive around the Kilauea Caldera and out to Kilauea Iki. First, however, we did a little wandering around the Volcano House on the rim of the caldera, where we were staying for a couple of days.

A very official USGS marker from 1912, the year construction on the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory began.

This location of the first benchmark is a bit hard for me to remember. I think it’s somewhere around the Visitor’s Center and the Volcano House, because the photos before it are of a cultural festival that was going on at the Visitor’s Center at the time. (It might also be near the Observatory and the Jagger Museum? Obviously I need to go back and figure this out.) It’s an old one, and it’s set in top of the marker in the next photo:

The date on the marker is Aug. 1887, with a lot of accompanying 'graffiti'. (19th century graffiti looks a lot better than anything you get with spray paint...)

The eruption of Kilauea Iki in 1959 must have been amazing to see in person. The eruption included fissuring, fire fountaining, and the construction of the Pu’u Pua’i cinder cone, not to mention creating a lava lake that people have been studying for years (it’s really good for finding out things like basalt cooling rates, since scientists know when it formed and that it finally finished crystallizing in 2003). And, of course, it’s a pretty spectacular landscape.

Looking across the Kilauea Iki crater to the Pu'u Pua'i cinder cone. Note the "bathtub rings" marking high levels of the lava lake before it drained for the last time.

A closer view of the cone, where you can clearly see post-eruptive slumping; eventually much of the cone may collapse into the crater. The trail that crosses the crater floor passes just in front of the vent.

Looking down on the cooled lava lake from a different vantage point. The white marks on the crater floor are spots where volcanic gases have deposited sulfur in crystalline form. Some of these cracks are still warm - it's nice on a windy day!

Although I’ve done the hike across the crater, over the side and across the bigger Kilauea Caldera floor, my parents preferred the rim walk around Kilauea Iki. Which turned out to be good for  my benchmark collection, because that’s where we came across this one:

I'm not quite sure where on the trail this was - possibly near the part that climbs the backside of the cinder cone. The placement year is 1958.

Update: Here’s some more information about this particular benchmark, which is located in the parking area for the lookout on the east side of Kilauea Iki. (Thanks for the find, Marc!) If you ever get the chance to visit the park and this particular trail, make sure to climb the ‘back’ side of the cinder cone. It’s one of those fascinating landscapes that looks as if it belongs on another planet.

Looking toward the summit of Pu'u Pua'i on the Devastation Trail.

It’s also a great place to see a pretty pristine tephra deposit, complete with Pele’s Tears:

Part of the UH Hilo course I participated in later that month, where we dug trenches in the 1959 tephra deposit. (Don't worry, we had permission and we were out of sight of the trail!

Pele's Tears in the tephra deposit. These are common in lava fountains like the one that formed the cinder cone, where spatters of lava are cooled quickly in the air.

This trail is called the “Devastation Trail” because prior to 1959 the area was covered in dense rain forest. Now, it’s extremely desolate, though for a volcanologist it’s just another landscape that tells the history of an eruption.

Another view from the "Devastation Trail"

And in the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Life finds a way”. There was a lot of life in even this tephra-covered landscape; sometimes it came right up to meet us, in fact.

A Kalij Pheasant taking advantage of the trail. These are game birds brought to Hawaii in 1962 and are now (of course) considered invasive species. They post-date the Kilauea Iki eruption temporally AND stratigraphically, in the case of this bird.