I always know when I first came to the Big Island, as I left on the day that Kilauea started to erupt. January 3 was the 33rd anniversary of beginning of the current East Rift Zone eruption at Pu’u O’o vent. Since that day in January of 1983, the eruption has destroyed more than 200 structures, including the Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park visitor center, the Royal Gardens subdivision and many homes and buildings in the town of Kalapana. On June 27, 2014, after decades of mostly southern flows, moving towards the ocean, the flows turned towards the town of Pahoa, which was under threat for months and remains below an active, but much reduced flow front that has seemingly stalled, at least for now. Life there has returned to an uneasy normal, as residents settle, a little nervously, back into Tutu Pele’s lap.
The current ongoing eruption cycle began along the middle of the east rift zone. By April of 1983, the eruptions became localized at one vent where lava fountains built a cinder and spatter cone 836 feet high (255 meters) that was named Pu`u `Ō`ō. The frequent short eruptions produced thick chunky lava flows that usually cooled and halted before reaching the coast. However, in July 1983, the lava made its inexorable advance into the nearby Royal Gardens subdivision and destroyed 16 homes leading to the abandonment of the expensive subdivision.
By 1986, lava flows cut through the town of Kalapana as the lava made its way to the sea. As the lava field spread, cooled and spread again over the next three years it destroyed many homes and the Visitor Center in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. In March 1990, Kilauea entered its most destructive eruption period in modern history and throughout the summer more than 100 homes, a church and a store were buried beneath 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 meters) of lava.
On March 3, 2012, the very last house in the Royal Gardens subdivision was abandoned by 61-year-old Jack Thompson. For years, Thompson had watched as lava claimed the homes of his neighbors, leaving the area to Thompson and a few hardy squatters. The last roads leading to Royal Gardens were closed in 2008, forcing Thompson to hike several miles to reach an access road whenever he needed something from town, but he still refused to leave. Finally on the morning of March 3, Thompson and a friend were evacuated by helicopter as lava finally consumed his home.
In 2008 an explosive event at Halema`uma`u Kilauea’s summit crater, signaled the return of lava to the summit caldera for the first time since 1924. When the vent first opened in March, it was about 115 feet wide, and lava became visible within the vent about six months later. The lava lake rises and falls with changes in the magma pressure. Wall collapses have triggered several explosive events, most recently on the 8th of January of this year, and lava has been at the surface a few times over the last few months. Whenever this occurs, visitor numbers increase dramatically, making Kilauea one of a relative handful of the world’s volcanos where people flock to rather than run from eruptions!
A two-mile stretch of Crater Rim Dr. remains closed to this day due to high levels of sulfur dioxide gas and other hazards, though the eruption itself has become a major attraction.
“What’s wonderful about this particular summit eruption is that it is accessible to nearly everyone and it’s right here in the main part of the park,” said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “The closest you can get is from the Jaggar Museum Overlook. People can park their car, walk a few steps along the paved walkway, and voila — one of the largest lava lakes in the world erupting right before their eyes.”
Park officials say visitation numbers have risen steadily ever since. In 2013, 1,583,209 visitors came to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a 6.7 percent jump from 2012. In 2012, visitor numbers were up 9.7 percent from the year before and in 2013 there were 1,583,209 visitors to the park, up from 1,483,928 visitors in 2012. Visitor spending in 2012 (the latest available data) was $113,376,400 in communities near the park, and, according to the National Park Service, that spending supports more than 1,300 jobs in the area.
Here is the National Parks video of the January 8 explosion: