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March 8, 2011 / Greg Vaughn

Hawaii Volcano Eruption

Molten lava splattering at Kilauea fissure eruption

Molten lava splattering during Hawaii's Kilauea volcano 1986 fissure eruption.

Madame Pele has been putting on a spectacular show the past few days at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is a new phase of an eruption in the east rift zone of Kilauea volcano on the the island of Hawaii that has been going on since 1983. Most of the eruptive activity has been from a single vent, named Pu’u O’o, but this new activity is a fissure eruption and is causing a lot of excitement for the geologists that work at HVNP.

In the 1980s I lived on the Kona side of the Big Island, and was extremely fortunate to witness and photograph several phases of the Pu’u O’u eruption. To see a volcano erupting is truly a mind-boggling and totally awesome experience.

The current eruptive phase is very similar, and very near to, a fissure eruption that I got to photograph up close in July, 1986. Reknowned French vulcanologist Maurice Krafft chartered a helicopter to take him to the site of the eruption so that he could film it, and the helicopter pilot invited me to go along since there was an empty seat.

Kilauea East Rift Zone Eruption

Kilauea East Rift Zone Eruption, July 18, 1986.

At that time, Kilauea had been erupting almost continuously for three years at the Pu’u O’o vent, but on July 18 the lava was fountaining from a long, narrow crack in the ground, forming a “Curtain of Fire”.  We circled the site several times getting aerial views, and then landed as close to the eruption as the pilot dared. Maurice grabbed his Arriflex and started filming, moving closer and closer to the splattering lava. I followed to the point that I couldn’t stand the heat anymore and thought that the soles of my boots were going to melt. Maurince ventured farther still, returning not long after with burn holes in his clothes from flying cinders.*

The heat was intense, the roar was deafening and the fumes choking. It was an incredible experience, so much so that I’ve always struggled to find words to do it justice. We don’t normally think of the earth as being alive, but witnessing a volcano eruption tends to change that perception.

Here is a link to more of my photos of the Pu’u O’o eruption.

* Maurice and his wife Katia, also a respected vulcanologist, both perished while filming the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991.


One Comment

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  1. Carl D / Mar 8 2011 2:28 pm

    Hey Greg

    Love it – must be a treat to witness, for sure.



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