By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is preparing for an influx of visitors as the lava lake levels in Halema‘uma‘u Crater continue to rise to their highest point since its formation following an explosive eruption on March 19, 2008.
Park officials say the current trend has been one of inflation and deflation of the lava lake, with successive inflations rising ever upward in the crater. Should the lake reach within about 65 feet of the crater floor, it will be directly visible to visitors from the overlook at Jaggar Museum.
“Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory report that the lava lake rose to levels approximately 125 feet or less beneath the crater floor (Friday) morning, and HVO webcams (Friday) suggest the lake rose even higher, before sinking again (Friday) afternoon,” reads a Friday evening press release from the park service.
Park staff have seen an increase in visitors in the last couple of weeks due to the recently increased activity, said Interpretive Ranger Shyla Ronia on Saturday afternoon.
“People are excited to see it, and we’re excited to see it, too,” she said with a smile. “It had been slow for a while, but just today and last Sunday, it’s been oddly busy.”
Ronia said that sometimes visitors can be disappointed upon first visiting the park and not seeing geysers of lava shooting hundreds of feet in the air like they may have seen in movies and other media.
“They’ll say, ‘Hey, this is just a big hole in the ground. Why should I be fascinated by this?’” she said. “They just don’t know. So we tell them. ‘Right now, we’re just a mile away from an eruption going on right now. To get any closer, you’d have to hike for hours, in dangerous conditions. … Or take a helicopter. This is a great opportunity.’ And if they stick around to see the glow at night, I’ve never had a visitor leave disappointed after that.”
Should the lava lake continue its current trend and end up being visible from the overlook, Ronia predicted that the park could be overrun by visitors from all over the state and the world.
“People will get on planes to come out here to see that,” she said.
But planes weren’t necessary for many of the onlookers at Jaggar Museum on Saturday. Among those visiting the park were a host of Big Isle residents eager to see what all the recent fuss has been about.
Hilo resident Kohala Lopes, 36, held aloft 1-year-old Zeus Martin as Aleka Martin, 29, held up Ulalena Martin, 5, to check out the smoke column rising from the crater.
“Whenever we have time we try to come up here,” Lopes said. “We saw in the newspaper that the lake levels were getting high, so we thought we should come back, just to see it for ourselves. I’ve been coming up here since I was really small, and I’ve never seen the kind of activity it’s been getting.”
Farmer Mick Sharp of Waiohinu was visiting with his pastor and stood up at the top of the walkway of Jaggar Museum to get a better vantage point down into the crater.
“It looks to me almost like it’s shifted a little over to the left, since the last time I was here. I can’t tell,” he said as he craned his neck.
Sharp said he enjoys bringing visiting family and friends to the overlook to see the glow in the evenings.
“I get really excited when there’s activity up here,” he said. “I read online the lava lake was building, and we had to come out.”
With the anticipated increases in visitors coming to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, rangers have been emphasizing traffic safety to prevent injuries — both to visitors and the wildlife.
“Several pairs of nene, the federally endangered Hawaiian goose, are beginning to nest near the Jaggar Museum parking lot and are sometimes spotted along roadsides and trails. Cars are the leading cause of nene fatalities, and drivers are cautioned to be alert, and to drive the speed limit,” stated the release.
Added Ronia: “We just lost a nene a few months back to a car. They mate for life, and it was part of one of our more successful pairs. It’s really a shame. We’re asking people to be more mindful when they’re driving and don’t speed.”
Drivers are also asked to follow all traffic signs and to only park in marked stalls. Visitors who plan to come after dark should bring flashlights, especially those who park at Kilauea Overlook, as cracks, rocks and other hazards are difficult to see in the dark.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” said Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando. “We encourage everyone to visit during this fascinating episode, but to exercise caution.
Staff will be assisting visitors with parking and interpretation of the current activities. If people come prepared and proceed as directed, they should have an unforgettable experience.”
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/havo. For webcams and daily Kilauea status updates, visit the USGS HVO website, http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.