Volcano Lava is Surprisingly Like A Frozen Lake

The lava temperature is so much hotter than the air, that it actually “freezes” on contact, creating a crusty layer. But that doesn’t stop the activity–the lava continues to flood underneath the layer; just like water flows underneath the top of a frozen lake.

This instant freeze creates stunning formations in the lava fields of Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park.

Lava frozen in time at Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park

What’s a Lava Field?

The lava may crust immediately, but it moves underneath that crust with authority and strength, overpowering the weak crust and overflowing onto everything in its path. Sometimes it runs fast, sometimes a slow ooze–that depends on the force of the eruption. Regardless, it covers territory…and sometimes creates new territory: 570 acres have been added to the Big Island from volcanic activity.

The lava fields are the expanse that’s been covered. They are desolate yet stunning. As with any good landscape, it continues beyond what the eye can see, yet this is a vista of destruction. The harsh lava is a stark contrast to the gentle sky.

Lava Field at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The artistic patterns from the lava’s movement defy their ruin. In some ways the designs are magnificent; in others they’re banal: I’ve made something that looks like this when I burned a pizza and the cheese melted onto the bottom of the oven. In other places it looks like the top of brownies.

Lava Field at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Will to Grow

More amazing than the annihilation of the plant life that grew here is its capacity to regrow. Out of nowhere–40 years later–sprouts force through the rock, and some greens grow on top of it. Nature outwits nature.

Plants growing in the lava fields

What Does Lava Feel Like?

When walking on it, it feels like rock: sturdy, unforgiving. There are broken pieces, and they feel like freeze-dried Styrofoam. There’s no smell–at least not in this field that’s 40 years old. Trust me, I sniffed those rocks!

Lava rocks

The Island is Like Swiss Cheese

When there’s a massive force of lava, it creates a lava tube. Think of an underground subway: it’s a mode of transportation. Once the eruption ends and the lava has flowed through, the tube remains; and it’s a significant feature: 13’h x 600’l with the width to drive two cars side by side. It’s cool and wet inside this practically straight tunnel.

Thurston Lava Tube

Photo courtesy of Flickr

The Volcano: Where the Lava Starts

Kilauea is the world’s most active volcano and has been erupting continuously since 1983. Lava flows constantly, seeping out of the earth wherever it feels the need–when I was there it was in the middle of nowhere and it was ill-advised to go looking for it. But that’s ok, because a massive crater was active for the first time since it opened in 2008.

First, some context.

This particular volcano is not the mountain you imagine or create for the science fair. That summit collapsed  500 years ago. Instead, you’re in a series of calderas and craters. Think of nesting bowls.  Humans wander around the caldera, the area of the collapsed volcano. It’s the largest of the nesting bowls and 2000 feet deep. The next layer is 425 feet deep; and then within that is a crater that opened in 2008 and is 600 feet wide. The crater reveals an active lava lake. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Crater within a Caldera at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

I’m on one level: the caldera; there’s a second level; and yet a third where you see SO2 gas from the active crater

Steam vents release rain water throughout the park. Standing over them is like standing over a boiling pot of water–you get a facial, but no awful smell like at Yellowstone. It’s hot down there…

Steam vents at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

How do we know that it’s hot down there? Seismic activity. Sound can go through liquid, not solid. So we know that the Earth’s core is liquid. And we know that it’s liquid everywhere, not just at hot spots like volcanoes, because of seismic tests conducted everywhere. We know that it’s hot because earthquakes give out waves that only go through water, so the core must be water-esque; but we also know that “on top” Earth is rock, so at the core, it must be hot rock and therefore liquid. This liquid is called magma; it’s only called lava when it reaches the surface.

This lesson is brought to you by the letter “s” for “stranger” and  for “scientist.” I asked these questions of the young Park Ranger who couldn’t answer them. An eavesdropping scientist (I believe a geologist) approached me for an education. He was more than qualified: he found ways to discover minerals more efficiently. Or more poetically, he can help you find the mother lode.

Let’s Look at Some Lava, Shall We?

This 600-foot-wide crater opened in March 2008. While I was visiting, it was the most active it’s been since then!

Crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The “smoke” actually isn’t; it’s SO2 gas, ash, and glass. It’s present from the level of the lava lake–the higher the lake, the wispier the gas plumes.

The lava lake levels rise and fall with seismic activity. It was 100 feet below the crater floor–so close, yet so far!

Crater lava levels

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

At night, gaggles of people return to see the reflection of the lava glow on the gasses. It’s unearthly. And damn cold. And would be a better picture if I had a tripod.

Lava reflecting on Gasses at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii afforded the chance to visit multiple volcanoes–active and dormant. It’s amazing to me that life grows on them and goes on around them. They are either violent, or sleeping giants–sometimes for thousands of years. How dormant is dormant, really?

The power, force, strength, quiet, and breadth of destruction that become a destination and beauty in its own right is overwhelming to me. Volcanoes National Park was one of the most incredible experiences of my travels. I am sorry for the loss it’s incurred; and grateful for the learning it’s inspired.


Have you been somewhere where you know that the Earth is alive?

8 Responses


Beautiful. reminds me of the glacier I was on in New Zealand – slowly moving

Your Comments ~ Aloha! Fantastic photos and descriptions Paula, you are turning into our favorite cyber tour guide! While in Hawaii…no WIFI…sit and have a Mai~Tai ~ That just came too easy…sorry….

Penny and Trez – mai tais… oh mai!

That was a great overview on volcanoes. Gorgeous photos as usual. The one from the National Park Service scared the bejeezus out of me, making me rethink my desire to be cremated. (Only after I die, mind you.)

Jeannine – thanks for the raucous laugh. And it’s wonderful to find a kindred spirit who uses the phrase “scared the bejeezus out of me”

Great post.

We visited the newest lava field on the Big Island at night. Although the surface was new igneous rock (i.e. hardened lava), if you put your hand down between the cracks, you could feel the heat. The oddest thing was seeing one house still left standing in the field of black rock. They had built dams around the house. That’s one way of getting the neighborhood to yourself.
Just One Boomer (Suzanne) recently posted..Turkeytopia for a Philly PhridayMy Profile

Your Comments
Wow! Noah is doing a report and project on volcanoes as we speak. This info was amazing and helpful. How cool!
Thanks and Happy Chanukah.
Marcy and Noah

Marcy and Noah – happy to help! Let me know if you want any pictures.

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