Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –‘Molten Fire’ -Hawaii’s Otherwordly Lava



There is something remarkable about the lava spurting out of Kilauea, the miles-wide shield volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island that fissured anew last week. It cuts across roads, forming berms of black and smoldering rock. It bursts from the ground, dancing like bubbles above a cauldron. In one video, it creeps across the land and then devours a Ford Mustang.


So far, the lava has destroyed 35 structures in total, including 25 homes, continues Robinson Meyer in today’s Atlantic. This current activity may continue for some time: On Tuesday, two new lava fissures opened. One of the new cracks sits uphill of Lanipuna Gardens, a subdivision of 250 people that was evacuated last week but has so far remained unharmed. Hawaii Civil Defense ordered the mandatory evacuation of its last remaining residents Tuesday evening.


Yet numbers don’t get at the potency of the lava, at its otherworldliness. Where other volcanoes sometimes appear powdery or drab, Kilauea’s lava glows red. Other lava hardens soon after it bursts from the ground; Kilauea’s lava remains hot enough to ooze forward, setting cars on fire. In just this episode alone, Kilauea’s energy has torn a new, 2.5-mile-long hole in the ground.



Both geoscientists and indigenous Hawaiians agree that Hawaii’s lava is special. But they have different ways of talking about why that is—and different ways of seeing the substance that defines their profession or gives them a home.

For scientists, the defining quality of Hawaii’s lava is its chemistry. It’s what geologists call a basaltic lava, and this affects everything from its color to its hazards.

There are roughly two types of lava—and both types are, of course, runny and hot. Kilauea’s lava is formed by the melting of an oceanic plate, which means that it contains less silicon dioxide—the same mineral that becomes quartz—than continental plates. As such, it’s extremely runny and super hot. It also doesn’t put up much resistance to gases, which can freely pass through it. (When a continental plate melts, you get an eruption more like Mount St. Helens: That lava is stickier, and it often traps gas until it suddenly all escapes at once.)



Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist and disaster researcher, said this gives Hawaii’s lava a special characteristic: It’s “exactly like you imagine hot lava as a kid, leaping between furniture,” she told me in an email. “The geochemistry of Hawaiian lavas means [that it forms] smooth, laminar flow in snaking rivers. It’s also extremely hot, giving it that iconic fiery glow.”

That fiery glow, that childlike quality—it makes sense that some journalists have fallen back on cinema to describe the eruption. Watching videos of Kilauea’s lava, I kept thinking of the first time I ever saw lava on-screen: the Cave of Wonders sequence in Disney’s Aladdin. Another science journalist—upon seeing the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea, which has brimmed with molten fire this month—recalled the cracks of Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings.

“Part of why these eruptions look familiar is that it’s easier to safely photograph and record them than faster-moving, more violent eruptions, so these images are the ones we more commonly see in kid’s science books, or inspiring artists when they’re animating movies,” McKinnon told me.

“Kilauea’s lava is 1,170 degrees Celsius (or 2,140 degrees Fahrenheit) when it erupts, with the surface starting to cool within a few hundred seconds,” she said. “As it cools, it creates a crust that the lava flow breaks through over and over again.”

You can often estimate the temperature of lava by its color, she added. Yellow lava is the hottest, burning somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 degrees Celsius (about 1,830 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit). Orange lava smolders between 800 and 1,000 degrees Celsius (about 1,500 to 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit). And red lava is actually the coolest, at 600 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,100 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit).

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