Pahoa Lava Flow By Tom Niblick

Pahoa Lava Flow

By Tom Niblick

Every year my wife and I close our studio for a week or two and go to the Big Island (Hawaii) to house-sit a friends cabin while he visits friends and family on the mainland. Our friend’s home is about halfway up the slope of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. The cabin had just survived Hurricane Iselle last month with only one casualty, an albizia tree. He was lucky. A few miles away Iselle cut a swath through the forest downing countless thousands of trees, power lines and closing roads, leaving the Puna district (southeast) without power and water for several weeks.

A second natural disaster is slowly creeping down the volcano and in less than two weeks will sweep across the main highway and isolate thousands of homes and farms. The Puu Oo lava flow, which started on June 27th, has moved towards the sea at a rate of 250 – 400 yards every day. We could not see the hot lava while we were visiting Puna because the lava was moving through inaccessible forest land and near access was blocked to all but local traffic. All we could see was smoke in the distance. All of this has changed two days later, as the lava has enter the Kaohe Homesteads subdivision, putting countless homes in danger.

Around September 24th as the lava will cross highway 130 and, unless the flow changes direction, will probably destroy the town of Pahoa. This has happened before when a similar lava flow closed the highway at Kalapana, burning homes and isolating hundreds of residents. The current flow promises to be even more dramatic.

The town of Pahoa is a charming place with several nice restaurants, coffee houses and markets. Inhabited by young and old hippies, it is a tropical paradise where nature’s children go to escape civilization and live a simpler life. Land was (and still is) inexpensive and living off the grid is common. However, there is a reason why one can buy land in paradise for less than $10,000 per acre – lava. Black lava is only a few inches beneath the surface with a sprinkling of moss and decayed forest litter for covering. The subsurface lava is also why so many trees went down in the hurricane, the tree roots were close to the surface and with no dirt to hold them down, tipped over in the wind.

Nothing is being done to divert the flow as native Hawaiians consider this disrespectful to Pele, the volcano goddess. In fact they are all busy cleaning their homes and cutting their lawns in preparation for “a very important guest.” Doing these simple tasks often spares houses and property. We took a day and did the same. Our friend’s house is now clean, cut and ready for Madam Pele, should she decide to shift her flow.

Should anyone want to see this once-in-a-generation event, they should get to Hawaii soon. Once the lava closes the highway, only local traffic will be permitted on the dirt road by-pass now being plowed. Even this emergency road lies between the lava and the sea. Disaster is inevitable. It may be many years before the flow stops and this corner of the island becomes accessible. Rooms and lodging will be scarce in Hilo which is about an hour’s drive from Pahoa. Arnotts is an affordable combo hostel, camp and lodge. A real treat would be to stay at the Volcano House inside the National Park. Bring a tripod if you want to shoot the lava at night and good shoes!

We would have loved to stay to witness this once-in-a-generation event but had a backlog of studio work and our own house sitter had other engagements. Ten days was all we could spare.

Of yes, I used my ever-present Leica M9 with 21 SEM, 35 type IV Summicron and 50 Summicron (Tiger Claw) lenses while Debbie, my wife, used her favorite camera, an Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40 and 60 macro Olympus lenses. She loves her little camera!

1) Debbie shooting what is left of a bromeliad garden after host tree was uprooted in hurricane. Leica M9 with 35 Summicron.

1 Debbie
2) Bromeliad. Olympus OMD E-M1 with 60 Macro.

3) Roads are closed except for local access. Leica M9 with 35 Summicron.

3 Road Closed
4) Lava is burning the forest about 1 mile from road. Leica M9 with 35 Summicron.

4 Lavainforest
5) Pele’s Kitchen in Pahoa. It is considered bad luck to name a business after Pele. Leica M9 with 35 Summicron.

5 Pahoa
6) Kaleo’s Restaurant in Pahoa. Leica M9 with 35 Summicron.

6 Pahoa
7) Kalapana Lava Flow. There was a road here once upon a time. Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40 zoom.

8) Kilauea Iki Trail. This 4.5 mile hike takes you across a hardened lava lake which is still steaming from the 1959 eruption. Leica M9 with 21 SEM.

8 Kilauea Iki Trail
9) Kilauea Iki Crater. Ohia tree and ferns dot the crater. Leica M9 with 21 SEM.

9 Kilauea Iki Crater
10) Land for sale… cheap! Leica M9 with 35 Summicron.

10 Land4sale

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  1. I was in Pahoa 8 months ago with friends, quaint, beautiful and our visit to Kilauea was amazing. I am sad for these people. Heart goes out to them. Nature is beautiful except when this happens.. I will be back to the Big Island anyway.

  2. Just an update… after twisting and turning and then starting and stopping, yesterday the lava covered the Pahoa cemetery. It is now only yards from the village road. Residents are beginning to leave their homes. National and international news crews are showing up all waiting to see the houses burn and village entombed. How long this will take is anybody’s guess. It could be a day or two or a week or two. All that is certain is that the village of Pahoa stands in the way of the lava on its journey to the sea.

  3. Interesting images also for me as a geologist! Image 6 shows typical Pahoehoe lava which is the internationally used name for this type of smooth, wrinkled lava. It comes from a Hawaiian word meaning rope-lava because it looks like coils of rope. Picture 10 look more like Aa lava which is named so because it hurts to walk on , Its sharp and irregular and you probably screem AA! a lot walking it!

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