Hawaii had an earth-shattering celebration on New Year’s Eve when the active volcano Kīlauea erupted and 22 acres of the lava delta surrounding it collapsed into the sea.
The volcano’s regular activity and its steamy core make for spectacular displays at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The Kamokuna lava viewing area, which was just a few miles from the lava ocean at the mouth of the volcano, was opened in July 2016 by the National Park Service (NPS). Before December 31, visitors who spectated from the lava delta could literally feel the heat of the volcano and watch as its lava oozed into the ocean. Alas, as of that evening, it’s all underwater.
It’s unclear what made NPS think it was a good idea to open the viewing area in the first place. A lava delta is notoriously unstable land that is formed when the lava reaches the seabed and cools off. There are tiny “lava tubes” that run just beneath the surface, where additional lava can escape and release toxic plumes of steam. The surrounding environment is so dangerous, in fact, that tourists could only visit between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. because “from mid-morning through late afternoon the wind often carries the plume onshore and along the coast,” according to the NPS website.
The viewing area was the most recent installment to the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and had nearly 1,500 visitors a day in the short time that it was open. The influx of hikers shortly after the opening had media outlets buzzing with ominous messages about health risks and the very likely possibility of its collapse. “They are deceptively stable looking,” Hawaii Volcano Observatory spokeswoman Janet Babb told West Hawaii Today in August.
Despite the dangers associated with viewing volcanoes up close, they continue to draw in huge crowds willing to risk their lives to catch a close-up view of fresh lava.
No one was reported to be injured after the Kīlauea eruption, but five hikers did manage to sneak in for a little NYE rendezvous. The park service reported that two workers had to run after them, risking their own safety. The trespassers were rescued from a cliff overlooking the eruption, which collapsed just 15 minutes after they decided to turn around.
The viewing area is officially temporarily closed, suggesting that NPS is reconsidering building the platform up again.