The Fierce Beauty of Kīlauea
Text by by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photos by Bruce Omori.

Late last April, Hilo photojournalist Bruce Omori was in a helicopter hovering over the Pu‘u ‘O‘o ̄vent, in the eastern rift zone of Hawai‘i Island, when he realized the cinder cone’s floor had collapsed: The lava had disappeared and there was nothing but darkness. Days later the ground cracked open in the Leilani Estates neighborhood, and lava fountains erupted in people’s backyards. Over the following three months, explosions at Kılauea’s summit sent ash 30,000 feet into the air, and 4,400 earthquakes shook island homes. Omori took to the sky for sixty days straight, capturing the 2018 eruption as lava flowed to the sea, claiming more than seven hundred homes. Then it stopped just as suddenly as it began—the last gasp of an eruption that had been going since 1983. Now the ground is still, the air is clear and for the first time in decades, Pele sleeps. “Seeing the destruction of places from my childhood has been gut-wrenching,” says Omori, who has made documenting Kılauea’s various eruptions his life’s work. “But it has also given me extraordinary respect for this living, breathing planet.”

As morning broke in Kalapana in the summer of 2009, lava from Kīlauea poured into the sea, creating a cloud of acidic steam. Vortices (seen at left, beneath the steam column) began to form one after another, building from the ocean up. These columns of swirling air can occur whenever there’’s a large eruption. “Because volcanic activity involes such a great deal of heat, it tends to create its own weather, so to speak,” Omori says. “I’‘ve seen thunder and lightning storms above flowing fissures. Vortices form above the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō cinder cone, over lava fields and at ocean entry points.” Vortices typically don’‘t last more than a few seconds, but on this day, Omori says, conditions were perfect. The vortices materialized slowly, one at a time, until six were spinning as the plume stretched out to sea.

The basaltic lava seen in Hawai‘i forms as either pāhoehoe (prounounced pa-ho-e-ho-e) or ‘a‘ā (pronounced ah-ah). ‘A‘ā (seen above, bottom left) is sharp and painful to traverse, while pāhoehoe froms a smooth or ropy crust. You’‘ll find ‘a‘ā, when a flow goes down a steep incline or is moving at high flux. It’’s common for pāhoehoe to change to ‘a‘ā, but not the other way around. Above, top left: The leading edge of a flow creeps forward with a web of stringy lava stretching across it, the outer edge of the inferno appearing to transition into jagged ‘a‘ā as it advances. Above, top and bottom right: The exposed surface of pāhoehoe solidifies quickly, while friction from faster-moving lava beneath creates a tapestry of folds in the crust. “This velvety outer skin builds as molten lava contines to flow out from under it,” Omori explains. “It’’s somewhat pliable still, but it’’s rock—moving, bending rock.”

Small kupukupu ferns grow from a decade-old flow on the Kalapana coastal plain, which was decimated by an eruption in the ‘’90s. Twenty years later another flow inundated the area. After a flow cools, microorganisms are the first to colonize the new rock, but it takes six months or longer for the first visible inhabitants to appear. Ferns like these show up first—spores from upwind forest settle and are nourished by frequent rain. Their existence is temporary, however, as a new flow engulfs the old. Top right: Downslope from Leilani Estates, a lobe of lava more than a thousand fee wide topples hundred-foot-tall Cook pines and an ‘ōhia forest. An eruption is but a moment in time; these devastated areas will be vibrant again one day. “This is life on a volcanic island,” Omori says. “It might take generations, but it will come back… and it will be beautiful.”

Few geologic phenomena are more captivating or more complicated than lava. What else in this world destroys and creates at once? In three months the latest Kīlauea eruption wiped beloved places off the map and permanently altered the landscape. But it also brought communities together, showing just how far neighbors would go to help neighbors. At sunset in Kapoho, seen here, hundreds of crimson rivulets feed hot lava into a cold ocean, building a new coastline along the eastern tip of the island. Clouds of ash and “laze” (the acidic steam plumes that occur when lava hits seawater) billow over places where families once gathered to fish and swim in the protected bay. Yet this single eruption, when it ended, created 875 acres of new land, long stretches of beautiful black-sand beach and fascinating kīpuka (areas of land isolated by a lava flow)—adding yet another chapter to the evolving story of Hawai‘i Island. HH