Pele has returned to her legendary crater home on Kilauea. Once again the summit lava lake is rising and our night skies are adorned with the auburn glow of her fiery spectacle. After six months of quiet, on the afternoon of September 29, lava fountains broke through the frozen lava lake inside Halemaʻumaʻu. Scientists at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) declared this a “new eruption”—with new vents and initial eruption rates rivalling those of the devastating 2018 eruption—not a resumption of the recent December-March eruption that had created the lake.
Photos by Tom Peek unless otherwise credited.
The new eruption was not a surprise.
For weeks shallow earthquakes near Halemaʻumaʻu had rumbled under the summit caldera, and tiltmeters on its floor showed significant inflation, indicating that magma was lodging just beneath the surface. Then, at 3:09 p.m. on September 29—after the swarms had intensified and ground deformation increased—the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory upgraded Kilauea’s alert level from “advisory” to “watch” and alerted Civil Defense and the public that an eruption was possible. Ten minutes later, about 3:20 p.m., fiery fountains breached Kilauea’s lava lake.
My wife Catherine Robbins and I had read HVO’s precautionary alert, but before their second 3:38 p.m. eruption notice arrived in our mailbox, the voice mail on our landline began blinking. It was our neighbor, Volcano photographer Paul Buklarewicz, leaving a message:
“Halemaʻumaʻu is erupting! We’re on our way up now!”
Cath and I mobilized, and driving up the highway to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, we saw a great plume of gas, ash, and volcanic particles rising above the rainforest.
Inside the park, we trekked toward the rim of the caldera—to Hawaiians Kaluapele (the pit of Pele)—and encountered a half-dozen just mobilized rangers walking briskly to headquarters. A few minutes later, we arrived at a lesser known overlook on the caldera’s east rim.
Already there to pay their respects to Pele was a small cadre of park employees, including several old compatriots from our earlier years as Kilauea rangers. A warm reunion ensued as we all watched the colossal plumes gradually turn auburn after the sun dropped below distant Mauna Loa.
“We all fell silent.”
As night approached, the lava’s luminescence above the distant pit crater intensified, just as a light mist drizzled from the evening windward clouds, transforming Pele’s magical domain into a surreal scene of auburn light, deep shadows, and the silhouettes of trees along the caldera rim. We all fell silent.
Over the next hour Cath and I watched the pulsing glow as the mist thickened and one by one our park friends and the handful of other spectators went home. When we finally left, only one person remained, a Native Hawaiian ranger who’d arrived sometime after sunset, “to pay his respects,” he said, before he, too, headed home for the day.
OUR FIRST VIEW OF THE RISING LAVA LAKE
Three days later, in the early hours of October 2, Cath and I returned to Kilauea, this time to Kaluapele’s high north rim. For the first time since 2018—after lava had drained away from the summit and erupted downslope in lower Puna—we could see the newly risen lava lake, which until then was visible only to HVO scientists granted access by the park to remote closed areas deemed too hazardous for the public. We were thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to again witness firsthand this mighty and abiding creative force.
We were a mile and half from the molten lake, but with binoculars we could discern kaleidoscopic undulations on its luminescent surface, bringing back vivid memories of our watching Kilauea’s previous lava lakes—at Puʻu Oʻo, Kupaianaha, and the decade-long lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu prior to 2018. Brisk trade winds blew across the summit, rapidly chilling our bodies, but our hearts stayed warmed marveling at the volcanic sight, and our faces glowed deep red in Pele’s radiance.
“We settled onto our usual pew atop an old spatter rampart . . .”
By 4:30 a.m. other people began to arrive on the rim, so we headed out for another, more remote of our favorite spots, directly across the caldera on its south rim. We reached that vantage point shortly after 5:00 am and settled onto our usual pew atop an old spatter rampart.
For the next hour we took in the ever-changing spectacle of gassy light and roiling plume. And something else too, something we didn’t expect—the robust voice of the volcano carried on the brisk wind, the combined sound of jetting fountains and the sloshing lava lake.
A few other pilgrims came and went as daybreak approached, but mostly we were alone.
When predawn light rose from the east, the full contours of 14,000-foot Mauna Loa emerged from the shadows, a reminder of another of the volcano deity’s domains—one that has been gradually refilling with magma since its last eruption in 1984. Shortly before dawn, a woman appeared with two dogs—one pure white—and trekked out to a distant spatter rampart providing expansive views of both volcanoes.
Cath and I stayed until shortly after dawn. The woman was still there when we left.
As we trekked back to our car, the eastern clouds that had earlier obscured distant Mauna Kea began to clear, and a few minutes later, as the glow in Kilauea’s towering plume paled, we saw the high holy mountain bathed in the new day’s first light.
THE MESMERIZING FOUNTAIN
Three days later, in the wee hours of October 15, Cath and I returned to Kilauea to trek the park’s newly opened trail to a viewing area on the south side of Kaluapele. From the clifftop overlook we could see the luminescent lava lake and the mesmerizing fountain that fed it.
A few sturdy souls who’d come in the night were still there when we arrived, but by 3:30 a.m. Cath and I stood on the cliff alone, watching Pele dance wildly above the lake. Her voice—the fountain’s roar and the seething lake—was constant.
As predawn light began to illuminate the shadowed contours of the caldera and massive Mauna Loa became visible, other early risers began to populate the overlook. One of them, perched on a distant tumulus beyond the eruption’s glow, began playing a Hawaiian bamboo nose flute (ʻohe hano ihu), sending a soulful melody across Kaluapele that gave both of us “chicken skin.”
Just before dawn, dozens of people—many of them tourists—arrived at the overlook, and the quiet we’d enjoyed was now interrupted by gasps of wonder, chat about witnessing an erupting volcano for their first time, the beeps of cell phone cameras (often taking selfies), and the clatter of tripods being set up by the more serious photographers.
Spoiled by the earlier quiet and privacy of our wee-hour pilgrimage, Cath and I deemed it time to go. But as we headed back up the trail we noticed that the newcomers had also begun to fall silent. They ceased their agitated movements, found places along the rope line, and stood mesmerized, as we had been, watching the primordial power of Earth’s volcanic forces disgorge molten rock right before their eyes. The solemn, magical mood of the powerful Hawaiian goddess whose domain we had all entered returned . . . until the next wave of newcomers arrived.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many in the crowd would be permanently changed by this experience. When they return to the habituated normalcy of urbanized “civilization,” will they be relieved or left longing for some closer connection to the abiding power of nature, so remote from their usual day-to-day lives?