KALAPANA, HI — Li Ling is my hero, I think, as she tramps tirelessly beside me. It’s just past six in the morning; we’ve been awake for more than two hours and hiking across a pitch-black lava rock field for one. The night is at last slowly lightening, leaving us feeling more sure-footed on the uneven terrain. Just in time, too: we’re approaching the active flow zone, where a careless step could plunge someone’s extremity into 200-degree molten lava.
We’ve come here in darkness to see day begin at the place where land is being born. Kilauea Volcano has been erupting on the Big Island of Hawaii with startling regularity, usually with surface flows accessible to the sturdy hiker. Its reliability has endeared it to geologists and visitors, if not to local homeowners.
Kilauea tells the story of how all the Hawaiian islands were born: through the gradual but inexorable accumulation of molten rock, squeezed through the Earth’s crust to form little fragments of what most of us would call paradise. But a bare lava field is hardly as inviting as a lush tropical jungle or a warm ocean filled with coral.
Li Ling and I will see both later today. We will hike atop ancient soils while visiting waterfalls north of Hilo. This soil accumulated over hundreds of millennia, through the work of both biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) forces. A trickle of rainfall here, a gradually expanding fern or `ohi`a tree root system there, and slowly the lava rock breaks down. Dirt accumulates in crevices, hosts new plant life and the occasional insect. Eventually, a lush forest, replete with epiphytes and birdsong, stands where once there was bare, dry rock.
At the coast, Kilauea has created a series of steam plumes where lava is pouring into the sea. The waves crash violently against the cliff face and fall, hissing, back. Yet just fifteen miles away, a lava flow from 500 years ago has turned into a series of placid tidepools where we will spend our late afternoon snorkeling. The corals there are some of the most diverse on the island, and the fish seem cheerfully unconcerned about either geologic or anthropologic goings-on. That reef is decades old, built by the tirelessly steady efforts of coral polyps that drifted in by chance from the sea.
At the tidepools, parrotfish are already hard at work turning coral into sand. The breaking waves at the reef crest will eventually puncture the rock walls and scoop away the reef. Up in the lush rainforest, the waterfalls and streams we so admire are themselves eroding away the land. One has only to look at all the members of the Hawaiian Island chain, which extends all the way out to lonely Kure Atoll, and then to a string of seamounts beyond, to know that the Big Island, too, will eventually sink down beneath the waves.
Li Ling and I savored our ability to view this process of geological birth and death so intimately within such a short span of distance and time. The inexorable power of these forces is both awe-inspiring and overwhelming. I can memorize facts about lava flow age, rock chemistry, and weathering rates, but sometimes I feel sure that I really know nothing about these phenomena that happen on a timescale so much grander than my own.
In a way, this endless process is also reassuring. All rivers flow to the sea; all mountains are slowly washed away. Sediment sinks to the sea floor, is sucked beneath a continental plate, melted into new rock, and returned to the surface by a volcano. The marks we humans make on the surface of the planet are mere scratches in the geological record, important to us and other living things, but ultimately impermanent.
A friendly geologist we met on our hike offers us a long stem of sugar cane. He explains how to safely poke at the lava and, almost as an afterthought, tosses me a pair of gloves.
I edge closer, and feel the heat of the molten rock like the open door of a pizza oven. Slowly, I extend the cane, punching through the rapidly cooling outer layers to scoop at the molten red beneath. For a brief moment, I hold the world’s youngest rock at the end of a six-foot pole.
I once read a Hawaiian phrase uniquely suited for moments like this: “`Eli`eli kau mai.” Let awe possess me.
The fragment of rock falls from the cane, hits the cooled flow below, and shatters. Shortly, it’s covered by the advancing lava. In a heartbeat, my little disruption in the process of rock birth is erased.
Holly welcomes questions, comments, and stories of Hawaii via email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.