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New lava viewing area opens 2 days after shelf collapse

Updated: 
January 4, 2017 - 8:45am

HILO — A new viewing area for the Kamokuna lava ocean entry opened Tuesday after two days of closure due to a New Year’s Eve lava delta collapse.

About 26 acres of the delta collapsed into the sea beginning Saturday afternoon. Lava deltas form when lava entering a body of water builds new land on loose sand and substrate. New lava deltas are unstable for that reason, and easily erode.

More than 4 acres of older coastal cliffs, including the old viewing site for the 61g lava flow, also collapsed along with the delta, according to a statement from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Park rangers and scientists at the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory decided to establish the new viewing area about 900 feet east of a lava cascade and 60 feet inland of the cliffs.

Signs and rope boundaries mark closed-off areas that are still deemed hazardous.

“Visitors who do not heed warnings not only endanger themselves but the lives of others, including our park rangers who work tirelessly to ensure a safe visitor experience,” said park superintendent Cindy Orlando in a statement.

Just over four hours after the collapse began on New Year’s Eve and rangers temporarily closed the area, a group of five visitors slipped beneath the guard ropes before being called back by eruption crew ranger Travis Delimont and his co-worker.

The section of cliff where the group had been standing collapsed less than 15 minutes later.

Orlando said no aircraft or boats were reported in the area during the initial collapse, which created large waves and sent up plumes of toxic gas.

A temporary flight restriction above Kamokuna remains in place.

There are two ways visitors can approach the Kamokuna site. The Kalapana entrance in the east goes along a gravel emergency access road that is managed by the County of Hawaii until it reaches the national park boundary. Hawaii County Civil Defense closed the entrance of that road following the park’s closure of the viewing area, but reopened access after the new site was established.

Viewers also can hike in from the national park itself.

Park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracance said Tuesday that more than 1,000 people head out from Kalapana every night to watch the 61g lava flow enter the ocean at Kamokuna.

“From the park side, it’s hard to say (how many people hike out), but our visitation is huge right now,” she said, adding that park traffic is a “direct reflection” of holiday tourism boosts that take place around the island.

From the Kalapana side, the viewing area is a 4.2 mile one-way hike. From the park, the viewing area is about 5 miles from the end of Chain of Craters Road in the national park. For more lava viewing information, call (808) 430-1966.

Tuesday also marked the 34th anniversary of the start of the Pu‘u O‘o eruption, the source of the 61g flow.

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