Guest Commentary | To see an eruption: Hawaii 2018

Guest Commentary | To see an eruption: Hawaii 2018


It's no wonder that Pele, the goddess of fire in traditional Hawaiian culture, has remained prominent across the ages, for the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii have been actively erupting throughout human history.

The intensity of their eruptions, however, can change, and the past few weeks have seen the most intense eruptions since 1955. Right now, lava fountains up to 200 feet up into the air, and rivers of lava over 30 feet thick flood over the landscape, in some cases at speeds faster than you can run.

The present eruption is taking place along a giant fissure, an open gash in the overall volcano's surface. This fissure evidently provided a conduit that drained a lava lake that had filled a crater in Volcano National Park, about 25 miles away.

Sadly, this fissure, locally known as the "East Rift," runs right through populated neighborhoods, so the new flows don't just incinerate trees and shrubs or flow over rock left by previous flows but also ooze over roads, lawns, driveways, gardens, patios and homes. The heat from a flow can be so intense that it causes the house to burst into flames before the house becomes engulfed by molten rock.

Already, about 100 homes have been destroyed, and many more have been isolated when lava covers roads, so this eruption has become not just a geological wonder but also a human tragedy headlined by the news media worldwide.

I'm a geologist and am co-authoring a book on natural hazards and disasters. Past experience emphasizes that seeing the destructive force of nature firsthand helps make descriptions more accurate and meaningful. So when I realized that I didn't have any meetings scheduled for a week, I decided that visiting an actively erupting volcano was an opportunity not to be missed.

A search turned up a fairly cheap flight, a fairly cheap room (what actually turned out to be a small bungalow built on an old lava flow), and a fairly cheap rental car, and I headed off. I figured I'd figure out logistics once I got there. Over the course of the week, I would learn a lot. Not just about geology, but also about what happens when nature collides with society, and about how people and organizations deal with disaster.

Due to the miracle of modern jet travel, I left Illinois at dawn and landed in Kona, on the dry west side of the Big Island of Hawaii, in mid-afternoon. The eruption is taking place in the eastern tip of the island, so I drove the saddle road across the island, with the giant dome of Mauna Loa on one side and that of Mauna Kea on the other, and reached the bungalow near Pahoa by dusk.

The Big Island formed because it sits above a plume of very hot rock rising from deep inside the Earth. At a depth of about 60 miles below the surface, this rock melts, producing molten rock that makes its way to the surface and erupts as lava. Over time, eruptions from this "hot-spot volcano" built a mountain of lava whose total height (from base to peak) exceeds that of Mt. Everest.

Not all of the Big Island's lava comes from the same vent, so distinct, separate domes or "shields" of basalt have formed. The tallest, Mauna Kea, hosts an amazing observatory. Mauna Loa, next tallest, has been very active during the past few centuries.

Present-day eruptions come from fissures and craters of Kilauea. The other Hawaiian islands also formed from volcanic activity, but they are no longer active. The slow, northwestward movement of the Pacific Plate (the 60-mile-thick outer layer of the Earth beneath the Pacific Ocean), eventually carried those islands off the hot spot. Without new lava to build them up, they are slowly eroding and slumping away, and in a few million years will become submerged seamounts.

The first clue that this wasn't a normal time struck me when nightfall came. After I unpacked, I walked onto the patio to feel the trade winds, which blow fairly steadily from the northeast. It was mostly cloudy, not surprisingly, because the trades bring in moisture that condenses as it rises over the island. (For this reason, the east side, or Hilo side, of the Big Island is a rainforest, while the western, or Kona side, is a dry savanna.)

Then, I saw what looked like a beautiful sunset. The clouds were tinged bright orange-red, and nearer the horizon, they seemed to be glowing. But I was looking southeast, and the sun sets in the southwest. I wasn't seeing the sunset; I was seeing the eruption. Hidden by the trees, the lava fountain was coloring the sky red. It was like looking into Mordor in "Lord of the Rings."

So you want to see the Hawaiian volcano erupting up close and personal? Turns out, it's not so easy. Because of the emission of ash and gas and the potential instability of the ground, Volcano National Park, the usual destination where you can walk right up to slowly moving flows and even poke them with a stick, was closed. Totally closed, since the Visitor Center parking lot is on the verge of collapsing into the volcano's crater.

So I had three choices: Take a tourist boat to the spot where lava flows into the sea; take a tourist helicopter that flies over the lava flow; or figure out how to get in to see the flow on the ground. There are no viewpoints where you can park and look out over the active fountains and flows.

I started by taking the boat tour the next day. The red glow of lava shows up better when it's darker, even though it's harder to photograph, so I signed up for the dawn tour. Because lava flows have covered the road to the tour company's normal port, the boats depart from Hilo, about a 45-minute drive from the bungalow, and the boat ride to the lava flow takes an hour and a half. So I got up at 2 a.m. to be sure I was on time to check in at the pier at 3. The check-in spot was a sidewalk next to a fish market, so while waiting for the process to begin, our very sleepy group of passengers could watch really large fish being unloaded to be used in the popular Hawaiian dish poke.

It was raining, again, reminding me that eastern Hawaii is called a rainforest for a reason. The captain explained boarding and safety procedures and suggested that we not worry about getting wet because we were going to be much wetter due to the spray while cruising.

The boat holds about 40. Seniors (defined here as over 60) like me board first so that we can be sure to sit midships, because the impact on aging backbones when the boat slams into waves is less severe there. I luckily (or maybe not) got a seat by the gunwale.

We left the harbor, which is protected by a breakwater, and then the captain pulled back on the throttle and we plowed into the swells of the Pacific at somewhere around 30 knots. It was completely dark still, not only because the sun hadn't risen but also because the sky was completely overcast and the cloud ceiling hung only a couple of hundred feet above the water.

Yup, the captain was right: We got even wetter, because each time we plowed into a wave, a curtain of water doused those passengers, like me, who were sitting next to the gunwales. And since in the dark there was no way to see the 6- to 8-foot-high waves, there was no way to prepare for the impact. Except for the wham when we came down after flying off a wave, the cruise was kind of like riding a roller coaster, and much like a roller coaster, lots of people shrieked each time we went airborne. Unfortunately, some people didn't feel like shrieking because they were doubled over with seasickness.

About midway through the cruise, after we rounded a point of land, the air suddenly got warmer, and the sky started to glow red. We were feeling the heat and seeing the glow of the volcano.Our trip was lucky. Lava doesn't always drip into the sea, but today it was. We pulled in close to the dripping lava just as the sky started to lighten with the dawn. Lava is hot — really hot. A thermometer stuck into the lava we were seeing would register close to 2,000 degrees F, if it could register anything before melting.

When the lava drips into the sea, or a wave washes onto the flow, the water that comes in contact with it flashes to steam. So what we could see looked like a river of fiery molasses dripping blob by blob into a caldron of steam. The steam billowed continuously, but instead of being white, it glowed red. The drops of red lava and billows of red-tinged steam contrasted with the black rock that had formed just the day before. In fact, the whole shoreline we were looking at represented brand-new Earth. The captain slowly maneuvered the boat back and forth so people from both sides could see. The whole time, the boat rose and sank and tilted side-to-side as swells that had traveled across the Pacific passed beneath us. But instead of carrying surfers onto a sandy beach, these swells were crashing into red-hot lava.

After viewing for a while, we headed back. The return trip wasn't as bumpy since we were going with the waves. On disembarking, it took a few cups of hot coffee to overcome the chill, even in the tropical air of Hawaii.

My helicopter flight was scheduled for the next day, so in the meantime, I thought I'd try to drive as close to the flow as I could get, and headed back toward Pahoa. When I got there, the reality that, to local residents, this eruption is a natural disaster, not a tourist attraction, instantly became clear.

On the radio, the civil-defense announcements sounded dire. The broadcast would specify the current location of the lava flow, with predictions of when it would cross specified roads or enter certain neighborhoods. They would include warnings about which neighborhoods must be evacuated, and when people had to leave or "risk being isolated by lava," requiring an expensive rescue.

Naive to the reality on the ground, I drove down the road that headed toward the flow and came to a blockade staffed by the National Guard and local police. A big sign indicated that only local residents could pass, so I turned around and tried heading down another road, and soon came to another blockade. This one was less busy, so I drove up to soldier at the gate and asked if there were any viewpoints that were accessible. He very politely told me there were none, and to turn around and leave. The active lava flow really is completely off limits to unauthorized people.

Since access wasn't obvious, I headed instead to Volcano National Park. I knew it was closed, but I thought maybe I might be able to see something. There had been occasional explosions at the crater, sending up plumes of ash and gas high into the atmosphere. The explosions produced shockwaves that could be felt miles away, and some also ejected larger pyroclastic debris (the name geologists give for solid fragments erupted by a volcano). The highway that circumnavigates the Big Island (here, a two-lane road) passes through the park, though to get to the visitor center, you have to turn onto a now blockaded side road near the aptly named village of Volcano.

Where the highway enters the park, red hazard cones line the road and there's a flashing sign that says "DO NOT STOP FOR THE NEXT 12 MILES." That's a difficult command for a geologist, because driving trips are excuses for seeing rocks and landscapes, and this road goes through some unique landscape. Since I couldn't stop, I drove slowly, and since there was hardly any traffic, that wasn't a problem.

Until the signs appeared, I'd been driving through the rich green of the rainforest. The view through the car windows in the park looked much different. Now, everything seemed greyish, as if I was looking at a color photo that been reprinted in black and white. A car passed in the other direction and left a cloud of dust in its wake. The dust floated and swirled like the wisps you see when driving along a road after a dusting of snow has covered the highway on a very cold day.

But the "dust" here wasn't the tan or brown of dust on an Illinois dirt road, nor was it the shiny white of fresh snow. It was grey. The park had been covered by a dusting of volcanic ash. It was hiding the color of the leaves and making the air hazy and luminous. The clouds billowing up from the volcano look like smoke or the exhaust from a diesel truck, but they actually consist of volcanic dust (pulverized rock and tiny particles of volcanic glass) mixed with sulfur-rich gases. They billow up because the heat emitted by the volcano warms the air containing the dust, making it less dense and therefore buoyant relative to the surrounding air.

Because of the trade winds, the ash and gas produced by Kilauea gets carried to the south and west side of the island. The sulfur-rich gases mix with moisture in the air to become aerosols (tiny suspended droplets) of sulfuric acid. The aerosol disperses sunlight, making the air look hazy, producing vog. Vog (volcanic fog) looks like smog but comes from the interaction of volcanic gas and dust with air, not from car or power-plant exhaust.

The sulfur-rich gases and aerosols have a rotten-egg smell and can make your eyes sting. Due to vog, there are times when people along the west and south side of the island can't see more than a mile or so, even on an otherwise-sunny day. Indeed, during an eruption, air quality can be as bad on sparsely populated Hawaii as it is over densely populated Los Angeles.

I had noticed that the local Police/Fire Station in Pahoa had become the deployment center for National Guard and civil-defense personnel, so when I drove back there, I decided to pull in and hang out (trying hard not to be in the way) to sense how the operations were working, see if I could hear about any new issues or discoveries, and, to be honest, see if I might learn of some other way to get to a vantage point to see the flow.

I learned many things very quickly about the response to a disaster of the magnitude taking place on Hawaii. Clearly, to the people affected, this eruption truly is a calamity. Over 100 homes have been destroyed and hundreds of families have been displaced. But thankfully, no lives have been lost, and only one person has been injured. (A man was hit in the leg by a block of hot rock ejected by the volcano.) In comparison to major hurricanes and earthquakes, or catastrophic volcanic explosions, it doesn't meet criteria to be formally classified as a major national disaster, yet.

Five groups have taken on responsibilities during this eruption. Civil defense works to keep people informed and manage relief efforts. The National Guard oversees access, manages military operations and makes the area secure. Local police, fire, and ambulance services continue with their normal duties and work with the National Guard to maintain security. Relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, work to find housing and food for displaced people. And the U.S. Geological Survey has teams on the ground monitoring the progress of the eruption. USGS geologists measure the output of volcanic gases, map the positions of flows, vents and fissures, document changes in the volcano's shape, and record earthquakes produced when molten rock flows underground or new fissures open. The geologists also try to understand the science behind the eruption and see if they can predict what will happen next.

At the deployment center, the civil defense has a desk and uniformed individuals who constantly respond to texts and calls. They politely answer questions and direct people to resources. While I was there, a pickup truck and a van pulled in, and a group of people with cameras and microphones disembarked and lined up at the desk. They were each given a badge and then re-congregated off to the side. It became clear that the group consisted of reporters who were to be escorted in to see the active flows. A civil-defense staffer came out and gave a presentation about the hazards they would encounter. Then, a National Guard major introduced himself and explained how the tour would operate.

I saw my chance. I came prepared with a letter from my book's editor asking that I be allowed to join a tour if the opportunity should arise. So when the major finished his presentation, I walked up to him, explained my situation, and asked to join the tour. I showed him the letter. He politely said no, that tours were only for the "media" and books don't count. Needless to say, it was frustrating to watch the press pool head off. All I could do was head back to my bungalow, where I sat on the patio and watched the pulsating glow of the lava-tinted skies as night settled in.

The next day, I had a morning helicopter ride scheduled, so I drove to Hilo airport and checked in. It's a little different from checking in to a regular flight. I'd signed up for a doors-off flight, so you can't have anything loose with you. You have to empty your pockets, have straps on all your cameras and take off your hat. And you have to get weighed with the equipment you're taking.

I was so eager for the flight that I got to the desk way early. In the waiting room, a video loop showed endless spectacular views of what you can see from the helicopter on a nice sunny day. One problem: It wasn't a nice day — it's a rainforest, so it's cloudy and rainy more often than not, and that was the case now. So after I had waited for over an hour, the pilot came in and said that the flight was canceled. The pilots don't have instrument rating, so they have to be able to see to fly. And of course, since the purpose of the flight is to see, there's no point going if there's no visibility.

Fortunately, this wasn't my only day, and unlike some of the other disappointed passengers who'd driven two hours from Kona specifically for the flight, I'd only driven about 45 minutes. I rescheduled for the following day. I noticed that weather seemed better in the afternoon, so I booked that flight. I went back to the bungalow, and since it had internet, I worked for the rest of the day. I noticed that the weather was better in the afternoon, so I figured I'd have better luck the next day.

The next day came. All morning, the clouds remained high, and the rain showers very brief. I could hear helicopters going back and forth nonstop and felt guilty about my role in contributing to the noise. (Some residents have yard signs saying "Ban helicopters!"). After working at the bungalow all morning, I headed to Hilo for the afternoon flight. As I drove, I noticed the ceiling getting lower and the rain getting heavier. After watching the sunny video loop in the waiting room for another hour, the pilot came in and announced the flight was canceled. Strike two.

I went back to the desk and rebooked for the next day. At this point, I was starting to get pretty frustrated. I'd come all this way to see erupting lava, and so far all I'd seen was a relatively small amount dripping into the sea at the very end of a flow.

I began to think I might be out of luck. I decided to head back to the deployment center on the chance that there might be some other way to get in. Once there, I wandered over to the USGS vehicles, where a volcanologist was labeling samples and getting ready to go home after an exhausting eight-hour shift. Volcanologists, geologists who specialize in studying volcanoes, had flown in from all over to help. I'm not a volcanologist and couldn't be part of a scientific team.As I chatted with the volcanologist, I mentioned my frustration that reporters from TV stations could get in but a geologist working on a book that would include a discussion of the eruption couldn't. He looked up and said, "Well, why don't you contact your local newspaper and see if they're interested in an article, and then you can become a reporter yourself?"

That hadn't occurred to me before. I'd be more than happy to write about the eruption and provide images, so I contacted Rob Kanter, who writes the "Environmental Almanac" column for The News-Gazette (full disclosure: Rob works in the School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois, for which I currently serve as director). Rob contacted Jeff D'Alessio, editor of The News-Gazette, who agreed, and within a few hours, I had a letter stating that Professor Stephen Marshak was a temporary cub reporter for The N-G. I drove with the letter back to the deployment center and showed it to the National Guard major.

He has sole authority to provide authorization for the press. He took a look at the letter and said, "That should work." Then he gave me the instructions for how to get official permission. For a geologist, it was like being given the password to the gates of the Emerald City, so I was quite excited. I texted a PDF of the letter to an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who then texted it to the major. I was now on the list to go in with the reporter pool the next day at 6 p.m. The major said to meet at a specified church parking lot an hour before.

About 3 the next afternoon, I got a text from the major saying sulfur gas masks would be necessary. I had thought only dust masks were necessary. Sulfur gas masks are more sophisticated and aren't stocked by a regular drugstore, so I texted the major to ask for a source. He wrote back saying he didn't know. I drove back to the deployment center and asked the representative from civil defense; he also didn't know. Now I was getting worried. I had no idea of where a mask might be sold. I had heard on the radio that the civil-defense staff had been distributing masks, but that was a few days ago, and they weren't doing it now. Suddenly, it occurred to me that local residents might know.

Residents displaced from their homes are living in a variety of temporary shelters, or with friends. The community has swung into action, so on the radio, you'll hear frequent announcements of benefit concerts, food drop-off points and organizations offering resources. I drove over to an RV camp for displaced people, feeling very uncomfortable about bothering them with such a question. But when I approached the four men who were wearing official-looking vests and sitting under a rain tarp at the entrance, they gave me a friendly hello, despite the stress that they're under, and directed me to the local hardware store. Sure enough, the clerk took me straight to a stack of masks. She told me to be very careful in using it and to make sure the seal was tight.

"Oh, and by the way," she said, "it doesn't work with beards or mustaches, so you'll have to shave yours off."

I grew a beard when I participated in a research project in Antarctica in 1979 and have never shaved it since. Since I'd noticed that bearded reporters were going in the day before, I thought I'd take my chances, but just in case, I got a tube of Vaseline to make a seal if I really needed one. I couldn't help noticing that in Pahoa, life seemed to be going on pretty much as usual. The drastic changes impacting people from neighborhoods being affected by the flow did not change the daily life of those just a mile away.

I headed off to the church parking lot in Pahoa. Five o'clock came and went, 5:30 came and went, and nobody was there. So, thinking I'd somehow missed the group, I rushed back to the deployment center. No reporters were there either, and no one had an explanation. I began to realize that though everything is pretty well organized, there aren't always direct lines of communication between different players.

I was bummed, for I'd started the day thinking I was going to have a helicopter view and an on-ground visit, and the day was almost over without me having done either. Just then, another civil-defense staff person walked by and said, "Oh, I hear they canceled the 6 p.m. trip and are doing one at 9:30 p.m. instead." I texted the major, and he responded to say yes, the 6 p.m. was canceled because of lack of availability of a vehicle, and I should be at the church at 9:30 p.m.

So at 9 o'clock, I was back in the church parking lot with my hard hat, mask and camera. The volcano made the entire sky over Pahoa glow red. Then, the van and the pickup used to transport reporters pulled in, followed by various vehicles with reporters, camera people and producers. There was clear camaraderie among them as many had met each other at previous disasters. I stayed to the side so as not to make too much of a fool of myself by saying the wrong thing. (I did anyway when a reporter said she didn't know how to spell "pyroclast"; the professor in me blurted out the spelling, not realizing she meant it as a rhetorical question.) A pyroclast is a fragment of debris ejected from a volcano.

After a while, we loaded the vehicles. I found myself seated next to a CNN reporter and in front of an NBC reporter. These were apparently nationally known people, but I didn't know that. There I was, a cub reporter from The News-Gazette, heading into a volcanic natural disaster with a national press crew. Yes, it did seem rather surreal. We drove back to the deployment center, and then stood in line to receive our credentials (a card in a plastic sleeve). Then we stood in a group and listened to the civil-defense representative warn us about the hazards of going into neighborhoods being affected by a volcano.

I'd seen pictures of houses that had caught fire during previous eruptions. But the civil-defense rep pointed out that there are lots of other flammable materials in a neighborhood besides houses, and I hadn't thought of that before.

For example, when lava approaches a car, first the heated tires explode, then the gas tank explodes, then all the plastics in the car burn, emitting lots of acrid smoke. In addition, propane tanks used for grilling outside explode. We were also warned not to stand over buried septic tanks, because when heated, they burst their lids and spray their contents broadly. Also, we were told not to film burning houses with the street numbers visible, so that residents would not learn that their homes were gone by watching TV. And we were told to use our masks because the air was not only full of dangerous volcanic dust but also contained all sorts of carcinogens.

Then the major came over and instructed us on how the visit would operate. We'd be driven in and let off at pre-selected sites. We were to walk only when and where we were told, and we were not to go past the soldiers in front or behind our group. Then we signed forms releasing the government from responsibility if we were hurt or killed, and finally, we were off. We drove past the blockades to a location where a lava flow was crossing a road. In the distance to the right was the main fountain, shooting red-hot molten rock 200 feet in the sky.

One by one, the roads that provide access to the affected communities have been cut off, as lava doesn't care if it covers older rock, forest, lawns or asphalt. As lava crosses the road, the tar in the asphalt bursts into flame. What struck me as I stared at this flow was the smell of the air. It was a mix of burned wood, burned grass, burning tar and dust, with just a hint of sulfurous gas. Fortunately, gas concentrations were low enough that the mask was unnecessary, and only a few of the people in the group used them.

It turns out that the National Guard and civil defense are very cautious about gas concentrations, so the soldiers carried detectors. If the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air registers above 1 part per million, you have to put on your mask. At 2 ppm, you stop advancing. At 3 ppm, you retreat. Some volcanologists tend to be a bit more relaxed about the gases and say that you don't actually feel bothered until concentrations reach 50 to 100 ppm.

Every stop on the tour is closely timed. We were given 10 minutes at a site, with two minutes advance warning before we had to head back to the van. And when an order was given, we had to move. To a novice like me, it was interesting to see how the national news folks operated. They had much fancier equipment, of course. (I wished we had been able to go in at 6, because it's very difficult to do night photography, especially with non-expert equipment. But on the other hand, it is amazing to see lava at night.) What I quickly realized, somewhat to my surprise, is that most of the reporters weren't reporting on what they were seeing. They had decided on what they were going to say before we'd even left the church, and everything we actually saw was simply a background for their dramatically delivered sentences. At each stop, they said exactly the same thing. Presumably, after the trip was complete, their producer would decide which shot to use, and that's what would appear on the next day's news feed.

Since I'm a geologist writing a book, my goals were a bit different. While the reporters focused on a headline — that residents were being told to be evacuate or risk being cut off — I was trying to register the sight, sound and smell of a 200-foot-high lava fountain. It sounds like the roar of the rocky ocean shore on a stormy day, and it looks like a gusher of blood spurting from an artery. Most images taken at night are time lapse, so the red pyroclasts resemble the streaks of fireworks. But if you stare at the fountain in real time, what you see instead are individual clots of rock being ejected, each heading skyward and then falling back to ground as a newborn rock.

Our next stop was a location where a massive river of lava had crossed the road. The sides of the flow were frozen and dark, but you could see crusts of newborn rock flowing by on top, 20 or 30 feet above the road. We say "river of molten rock." Actually, it's more like an upside-down river of molten rock. A river carves a channel down into the ground. Here, the contents of the river flow on the surface and arch up.

We finished with a stop at a city park, where we stood on a baseball field to watch the lava fountain in the distance. Then it was back to the deployment center to turn in our badges, and back to the church to get our cars. Some of the reporters had been visiting the site every day for a week, and had been to countless disasters previously.

For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The next day, I had a morning helicopter flight scheduled. I got to the airport hoping that the third time would be a charm. But once again, the weather looked dicey. The counter clerk admitted there was a 50-50 chance of another cancelation. The afternoon would be my last chance, so I signed up for an afternoon flight as back-up. I sat in the lounge with the sunny video loop again, waiting for the inevitable walk in by the pilot to tell us the flight was canceled. But instead, a staff member came in and gave us a safety briefing. Were we really going? Then we were escorted out to the runway, and the rotors were turning. I wanted to believe we would take off but still didn't feel sure it would actually happen. And then finally we boarded, and indeed took off.

After all that, the flight was over far too quickly. We saw the fountain, but we had to dodge between clouds and couldn't see much of the flows. But it was still incredibly neat. One gets a very different perspective when you see the fountain from above. From the ground, you gauge the fountain's size relative to trees, and it seems huge. From the air, you see its size relative to the island, and while still really impressive, it's a lot smaller than the island. Clearly, it takes thousands upon thousands of such flows to build a new volcanic island.

We finished the flight with a swing by a stretch of rocky coast just north of Hilo, and saw some waterfalls. Waterfalls are beautiful ... but lava fountains are mind-boggling. After returning, I managed to get in touch with a volcanologist from the USGS and we agreed to meet for dinner. He couldn't meet in the middle of the day, because he'd just gotten off shift and needed to sleep. Some other volcanologists would join for dinner, so I looked forward to a chance to get filled in on the new science being done.

I had a few hours before my afternoon flight and decided to use the time to see the coast north of Hilo from the ground. It's undergone a fair amount of erosion, so it hosts deep channels, waterfalls and rocky coasts. It was very beautiful, as the interaction between rock and water often is. I could see the Earth's "rock cycle" in evidence, for what had been newborn rock perhaps only a few centuries earlier was now being broken apart by the pounding waves at the shore, and by flowing currents inland. Solid basalt was turning into black sand.

Back at the airport, the weather was dicey once again. But today was my lucky day, and we had the safety briefing and then boarded the helicopter. The afternoon flight was doors off, and it's a rather different experience. Without a sheet of plexiglass between you and the elements, you can see more clearly. But helicopters travel at 130 miles per hour, so there's hurricane-force wind blowing past the doors, and a lot of it blows on you.

The wind is so strong, it's actually hard to keep a camera steady. But it was worth it, as the cloud cover was less, and this time I could see entire lava rivers. Within and beneath an irregular black crust whose movement gave a sense of how the whole flow moved, you could see the red of the lava, even miles from the fountain. You could also see the fringe of smoke and fire at the toe of the flow, where it was burning its way into new forest or new subdivisions, and onto the property of a hydrothermal power station.

Flight done, and satisfied that I'd seen about as much as could be seen of the lava from the air, I headed back to Pahoa, and later met with a group of USGS volcanologists for dinner. While some of the researchers I'd met during the past few days were old hands, many, including the entire group I met in a Thai restaurant in the town nearest to the red glow of the volcano, represented a new generation. All were beyond excited to be having the opportunity to study this event. The volcanologists worked in teams, charting the course of the event, and trying to predict where the next vents or fissures might be and where lava was pooling behind new-formed basalt dams and had the potential to burst, letting out a flood of fast-moving lava that could go in an unexpected direction.

The turbulent emotions that scientists feel when studying natural hazards and disasters was palpable, for there's a conflict between "it's a natural wonder" and "it's a human tragedy." The researchers didn't live in the affected communities themselves, so they weren't directly affected. As people, they felt great sorrow at the loss of homes, memories and livelihoods that the residents of impacted communities were feeling.

Without having gone through such loss, it's hard to image how it feels to see a wall of molten rock encroaching on land that you lived on for your entire life, and not to know what the near-term will bring. Each affected person must have been thinking: How long will we have to stay in a relief center? Where can we rebuild? Who owns land that now lies underground — do your property rights transfer to the new surface? As scientists, it's hard to avoid wondering how developers ignored the warning signs that the communities being cut off or inundated now shouldn't have been built in the first place. Does it really make sense to build on land in the potential path of flows from an active volcano?

And, as scientists, it's hard not to be excited about all the new understanding that will come from the careful documentation of this eruption, for which it's now possible to use new technology, including drones, gas monitors, tiltmeters, synthetic aperture radar and more to understand every twitch and burp of the volcano. In fact, the data now being collected will keep researchers busy for years to come. Not only was the discussion fascinating, but as a geologist who is not a volcanologist, I was able to correct misunderstandings that I'd held before, and to get a refined sense of the character and scale of an eruption.Dinner finished at 10, and as the volcanologists headed back to the field, I went back to my bungalow to pack. Maybe I hadn't seen everything I'd hoped to see (I didn't see a flow crossing a lawn, nor did I hear the clink of new rock on the surface of a still-moving flow.) But I saw and heard many things that I hadn't imagined, and I now had a much better sense of how disaster relief operates, and of how the press deals with disasters.

While writing this essay on the flight back to the mainland, I came across a quote from the late British geologist Derek Ager: "The history of any one part of the Earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom, and short periods of terror." Hawaii is living through that terror right now, but without countless episodes of such terror, over geologic time, Hawaii would not exist.

Stephen Marshak is a professor in the Department of Geology and director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois.

Topics (2):Environment, People