In 1959 a dramatic and violent eruption turned Kilauea Iki at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park into a cauldron of lava with fantastic fountains of fire shooting skyward.
A hike across Kilauea Iki crater is a walk into the heart of one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. It is an otherworldly experience.
Even though the crater looks tame from above, in the recent past this mile-wide opening was once consumed with fiery magma as it gushed from the Earth. After the eruptions of 1959 it took until the mid 1990’s for the lava lake under the surface to turn solid. It is a popular destination these days.
The Kilauea Iki trail begins at the crater rim 3,874 feet (1,180 m) above sea level and descends 400 feet to the crater floor. The bird song of ‘apapane and `i`iwi (Hawaiian honeycreepers) fill the air as the steep and rocky trail passes through a lush rain forest of Ohia Trees and Hapu ferns.
Before the 1959 eruption the crater was 400 feet deeper than it is now. On December 15, 1959 the highest flow of lava was measured at 1.45 million cubic meters per hour. At it’s maximum depth the lava lake began to drain back into the erupting vent, forming a counter-clockwise whirlpool full of black slabs of crumpling rock. The lake then dropped 50 feet, leaving what is known as a lava subsidence terrace along the edges.
Scattered across the crater floor are huge bubble shaped humps formed by the crust being pushed upward as the still fluid lava flowed beneath it.
Even after 50 years the solidified waves of lava are hot to the touch. The landscape is punctuated with fumaroles where rainwater seeps into cracks and makes contact with the extremely hot rock below and steam is emitted from various surface cracks.
There are two basic types of flow lava. Pāhoehoe, is basaltic lava that has a smooth, unbroken, billowy, undulating, or ropy surface. ʻAʻā is basaltic lava characterized by a rough or rubbly surface composed of broken lava blocks called clinker.
Because lava flows are very fluid, they can travel miles from their source before they cool and harden. Broken slab surface features are due to the movement of very fluid lava under a congealing surface crust.
Stark desolation is what remains after the bubbling cauldron of freshly-formed Earth cools. It doesn’t take long however before pioneering native Ohia trees take hold and small ferns root themselves in cracks and crevices.
In August 1959, a swarm of deep earthquakes was detected by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. In October it was indicated by seismographs that Kilauea summit was filling with magma. On November 15 an erupting fissure broke through the south wall of Kilauea Iki Crater at 8:08 p.m.
When observers first reached the edge of Kilauea Iki twenty minutes later, lava fountains 15 m tall were erupting from a line of discontinuous fissures. Lava was cascading down the steep forested slopes to the bottom of the crater about 100 m below. By November 17, now erupting from a single vent the fountain was reaching 60–80 meters tall. The fountain grew to over 320 meters by November 18.
On November 21, the lava lake was more than a meter deep over the vent, causing ripples across the surface of the lava lake and causing lava near the shores to break like waves on a beach. At 7:25 p.m. local time on November 21, the fountain went from 210 meters tall to a few gas bubbles in less than 40 seconds. After a few days, the eruption resumed, with 16 additional episodes of high fountaining,
A massive hill (Pu`u Pua`i) was formed of ash and splatter downwind from the vent during the lava fountaining. One of the fountains was the tallest ever observed at Kilauea’s summit, reaching an amazing 580 m (1,900 ft). The new lava filled Kilauea Iki Crater to a depth of about 130 m (425 ft). The eruption ended on December 20, 1959.
Partial melting in the Earth’s mantle at a depth of 40-60 km (52-30 miles) produces magma which rises through tubes and pools within a couple kilometers of the surface. Kilauea’s large magma pool lies just below the summit region at a depth of about 1.5-5 km (1-3 miles) forming a magma reservoir several kilometers wide.
Although Kilauea remains an active volcano, the center of the activity is in a separate section of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and Kilauea Iki is calm for the time being. It is a humbling and surreal feeling hiking across this virgin terrain.
To exit the crater the four mile trail continues as a loop and once again one soon enters the rainforest. Following the switchbacks that ascend the 400 foot (122 m) crater walls is equivalent to climbing a 40 story building. All part of a days fun and adventure.
Happy Trails, Dohn.
Following are a couple of documentary films shot at the time of the 1959 event.