Friday, July 7, 2017

Would You Go? The Pit Craters of Kilauea Volcano

Eddie Aikau is a Hawai'i legend. Born in 1946, he was an ancestor of Hawaiian kings, who in antiquity were the only ones allowed to surf. Eddie trained himself to become one of the great surfers of his day, but more importantly he was the first state paid lifeguard on the North Shore of Oahu. He ultimately saved 500 people, often under terrifying conditions. He lost is life in 1978 trying to rescue a crew of a Polynesian-style voyaging canoe. They were trying to travel 2,500 miles to Tahiti, but only made it 12 miles offshore of Molokai before floundering. Eddy, who had volunteered as a crew member, offered to swim for help. The crew was later rescued, but Eddy was never found. Not long afterward, the phrase "Eddie would go" was heard throughout the islands.

I thought of Eddie when I encountered Devils Throat on Chain of Craters Road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Devils Throat is a stark example of a pit crater. There are a number of them along Chain of Craters Road (you didn't guess that one, did you?), Some of them are hundreds of feet deep. They are odd because there are no lava flows associated with their origin. They form when underground magma chambers on the rift zone of Kilauea drain, causing the land above to suddenly collapse inwards.
Devils Throat is unique in that it formed in historical time, in 1912. When discovered, the opening was only 20 feet across, but it was found to be more than 250 deep. The Eddie connection? When it was discovered, a man was lowered by rope into the dark pit. What do you think? Would you have gone?

What he found inside was an immense inverted cone more than 200 feet across at the bottom. All the walls of the pit were overhanging. Given the fragmented nature of basaltic lava flows, such overhangs are extremely unstable. Boulders started falling essentially from the moment the pit formed. Over time, debris filled the bottom of the pit so that today it is 161 feet deep, and the opening has expanded to 164 feet. The National Park Service has never really publicized the existence of the pit over fears that people would get too close to the edge and have the rock collapse beneath them.
Today, the vertical walls of the pit may be a bit more stable, but who can really say? It's a fascinating place to visit if you can find it (a bit of map work is all it takes; it's just a few hundred feet from Chain of Craters Road).

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