ENVIRONMENT
10/28/2014 06:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Everything You Need To Know About The Lava Currently Flowing Through A Hawaii Town (UPDATED)

What happens when hot liquid earth rolls through a residential area? The rural town of Pahoa, on Hawaii's Big Island, is about to find out.

Here's everything you need to know about the slow-moving lava flow currently threatening Pahoa.

This Is Pahoa Village, The Town At Risk
Situated on the East Rift Zone of Hawaii Island's Kilauea volcano, this quiet town is home to about 800 people. Members of this close-knit community live primarily off solar energy and water catchment.

Lava flows are a part of Pahoa's history. "About 350 years ago the north side of Pahoa was flooded by lava flow, about 400 years ago most of what is Pahoa now was covered by a lava flow," University of Hawaii Geology Professor Michael Garcia told local news outlet KITV.

Here's a look at the area in 2014:

Its Residents Are Living In Lava Limbo
Pahoa residents and shop owners are debating if they should pack up or hunker down. Their beloved town could disappear entirely, and people can't help but recall when lava flows in 1990 and 1991 completely destroyed the nearby town of Kalapana, wiping out its church, store, 100 homes and a beautiful black sand beach.

"The anxiety level in Pahoa town is pretty high," Jessica Miller, a salesperson at a local surf shop, told Big Island Video News. "People are feeling down, they don't know what to do."

kalapana

A Kalapana house burning down during a lava flow in 1990.

The Lava Has Crossed Property Lines And Claimed Its First House
On Nov. 10, the lava reached its first home -- burning the 1,100-square-foot house in a mere 45 minutes. As the lava approaches homes, Hawaii officials are making arrangements for homeowners to watch the destruction, as "a means of closure," according to Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira. "You can only imagine the frustration as well as ... despair they're going through."

property lines

It Has Already Claimed A Cemetery, Too
After burning through forest, pastures and a road, the lava overtook parts of Pahoa Cemetery, a decidedly eery sight so close to Halloween. An especially memorable photo shows a single headstone standing untouched in a sea of black lava.

"I feel like it's a miracle," Aiko Sato said of her family headstone being spared. "I know subsequent breakouts could cover the grave, but at least I know it survived like a first round."

pahoa lava cemetery

This Is What The Advancing Lava Looks Like
The lava's speed has ebbed and flowed. At times, the fastest-advancing section of lava was roughly 45 yards wide and moving as fast as 16 yards per hour. An evacuation advisory has been issued for people who live in homes in the flow's current projected path, but many residents have already left voluntarily.

The Lava Has Traveled 13 Miles Since June 27
The current flow is a pahoehoe flow, which means it is smooth, billowy lava that moves in fits and starts. If you've ever seen heart-pounding lava scenes in the movies ("Dante's Peak" comes to mind), you should know that Hawaiian lava flows aren’t chase-you-down fast. The fastest recorded lava flow in Hawaii -- from the 1950 Mauna Loa eruption -- was just 6 mph.

That said, Kilauea is one of the world's most active volcanoes, having erupted continuously since 1983.
hawaii volcano map

Lava Is Very Hard To Predict And Impossible To Control
Flows are influenced by subtle changes in topography, variations in lava supply and how the lava interacts with cracks in the rift zone. No one knows, for instance, when the current flow will stop or how far it will go. "The only similar eruption [to Kilauea] occurred many thousands of years ago," University of Hawaii Professor of Geology Michael Garcia told KITV, adding that the eruption may have lasted 60 years.

That hasn't stopped some residents from trying to divert the flow themselves in order to protect their homes. One man built a berm around his property, while a video shows another resident trying to cool down the lava with a garden hose.

puna lava flow

The National Guard Has Been Called In To Help
Hawaii Guard troops are helping provide security and managing a roadblock. Many have called the lava flow a "slow motion disaster," and President Barack Obama has declared it to be a major disaster, which frees up federal money to help.

For Many In Hawaii, The Lava Is The Work Of A Goddess
Many Big Island residents believe that the lava flow is the work of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. They believe the lava should be respected, and even welcomed, as if it were Madame Pele herself. Some residents expressed anger at suggestions to divert the flow, saying it's culturally insensitive to interfere with Pele.


But The State Civil Defense Is Still Taking Precautions ...
Hawaiian Electric Company experimented with barriers to protect power poles from the lava's heat. It wrapped the poles with thermal insulation, concrete pipes and wire horse fencing. So far, the measure has worked.

Lava Flow Update: We are encouraged by the initial result of the pole protection design, but the long term results are still not determined. Our poles along Apa‘a Street currently remain in place, and we have not experienced power interruptions or outages caused by the flow. Many people are interested in how we’re protecting our infrastructure from the lava’s intense heat. The final pole protection design is a collaboration between our Distribution department personnel, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo experts, and geologists from the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Our partners were instrumental in helping us understand lava, and they continue to assist us with post-impact evaluations. #PunaLavaFlow #BigIsland #LavaFlow

A photo posted by @hawaiianelectric on


... And Ensuring There Is A Clear Evacuation Plan
Emergency crews have been working to build new roads around the town, in the event the flow covers the main road and highway. If lava does cross Highway 130, the area would be cut off from the rest of the island.

The lava has already crossed other, smaller roads.
pahoa lava

School Has Been Cancelled Indefinitely
The state Department of Education announced it would be closing Keonepoko Elementary School indefinitely, since the school is potentially in the path of the lava flow. Several other schools will close to help with administrative work and to prepare the transition for those most affected.


The Heat Hasn't Stopped Inquisitive And Daring Mortals From Chasing Down The Lava

While it might not be wise or respectful, many people have ventured to Pahoa to see the phenomenon for themselves. Some companies have even offered tours of the dangerous flow, and two residents were arrested after dipping various objects, including an egg beater and golf clubs, in the lava. Meanwhile, the airspace above the flow has been closed because of curious helicopter tours and media.

ruth crawford lava mixer

After All, Lava Can Be Fascinating Stuff (From A Safe Distance, Of Course)
Hawaiian lava is typically around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes for some pretty epic science experiments.

But Still, It's Probably Best For Tourists To See Pele At Her Other Home
There are a number of other places to view the power and might of Kilauea, including Halemaumau -- the crater in which Pele lives, according to Hawaiian legend. Considering the volatile lava lake at the bottom of the crater, it seems like a fitting home for her. Sometimes red-hot lava can also be seen flowing into the ocean, on the southern coast of the Big Island.

pahoa

Even In The Midst Of It All, Pahoa Remains Strong
While there have been some reports of looting, most residents of this town are handling the situation with resilience and grace.

Area man Alii Hauanio, who lost a Kalapana home to the lava in 1991, is now in danger of seeing another home consumed by Pele. Nevertheless, he exemplified the attitude of Pahoa's inhabitants when he told Hawaii News Now: "You know honestly, it's just material. I came into this world naked, I'm going out naked. I ain't taking this with me, but the memories I can take. And that's what's the most precious and that's what I can keep."
pahoa lava

This story has been updated to reflect current information on the lava's location and the community's response.

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