Full Episode
Kilauea: Mountain of Fire

UPDATE | May 2018: With the recent eruptions at the summit of Kilauea resulting in dangerous conditions for residents, scientists and concerned citizens alike are directing their attention to this Big Island volcano to learn more about its activity and ecosystem.

Kilauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, is the world’s most active volcano.  Its latest eruption began in 1983 and it hasn’t stopped since.  Since that time it has created 544 acres of new land and has consumed 200 homes. But as we watch nature’s own fireworks display and witness the devastation wrought by flowing lava, we’ve also been able to observe a process that’s central to life on these islands.  The most spectacular moment of creation is when lava pours into the ocean creating new land, and it is here that filmmaker Paul Atkins finds himself getting a shot few have ever filmed — the cataclysmic meeting of 2,000-degree lava and 75-degree ocean water — a sight to behold. Buy the DVD. This film premiered March 29, 2009.

Transcript Print

Its heart is molten rock.

Its breath, jets of fire.

Its craters are portals-deep into the earth.

It is the volcano Kilauea and with its every eruption, Hawaii is born anew.

[Man] You've got red-hot molten lava shooting up in the air a thousand feet.

Now the mountain of fire is reawakening with a fury.

[Man] These are some of the largest explosions people who have worked here for a long time have ever seen.

[Man] I've been waiting for 25 years for this to occur again.

[Man] Something has happened that hasn't happened in almost 100 years.

Kilauea is suddenly exploding with questions.

How is it that life can cling-to these perilous slopes?

[Man] There are at least 300 wasps around us right now.

Deciphering the mysteries of one the most destructive and creative forces in the world.

- Helicopter 407, Whiskey Hotel.

(mid-tempo instrumental music) - [Narrator] The earth formed four and half billion years ago.

But ask Ben Brooks, and he'll tell you-- - [Ben] That is awesome.

- [Narrator] It's being born right now.

- [Ben] We're lucky that the trade winds are blowing to the west so that we're not in the middle of it.

- [Narrator] Ben is a volcanologist; the focus of his work, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kilauea.

(mid-tempo instrumental music) - I've seen ocean entries by walking to it, but not like this.

(mid-tempo instrumental music) - [Narrator] Volcanoes in other parts of the world form when plates along the Earth's crust collide, or are wrenched apart.

But Hawaii's rise from far deeper, straight out of hot spots, down in the planet's mantle.

Perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, Kilauea broke the water's surface to help form the biggest island of the chain, Hawaii.

One of its latest outbursts, a vent called Pu'u O'o.

- [Ben] So now we're coming up from the ocean up towards Pu'u O'o.

And you can see that the whole edifice is filled with a bunch of volcanic fume.

(reflective instrumental music) - [Narrator] Kilauea has generated enough lava to pave a two-lane highway over a million miles long... Churning it out of vents like Pu'u O'o.

- [Ben] Basically, in a short period of time, the lava lake, which was in the center of the crater, drained very rapidly, and this new vent formed here over on the east side.

You can see the black fresh lava.

Notorious as Pu'u O'o is, it only began in 1983.

One witness was park ranger, Greg Santos.

- When Pu'u O'o would go off, we would literally get woken up in the middle of the night.

The loud roar sounded like a fleet of 747s.

(rumbling) Even from five miles away, it would get so loud that we couldn't talk to each other.

The noise is just deafening.

(blasting) Red, hot molten lava shooting up in the air a thousand feet or more.

- [Narrator] When Pu'u O'o will blow again, it's hard to know.

But that doesn't stop scientists from trying to predict... - [Ben] 1070 at 3005.

(helicopter blades beating) - [Narrator] What are the hydraulics of this molten system?

How is pressure built and displaced?

We might be able to find out, if only we could peer into the volcano's depths.

- [Ben] The fume is composed primarily of water vapor and sulfur dioxide gas.

It's hard to get through that.

- [Narrator] Now, Ben's about to penetrate Pu'u O'o's shroud.

There's a revolutionary 3D imaging device called LIDAR.

- I got it.

It's about 60 pounds.

Heavy enough to not let us walk that fast.

But if the plume changes, we'll walk a lot faster, so.

- [Narrator] Mike Poland is with the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

- It's important to understand what's happening down there because we don't really know what's happening next without the view of the volcano.

We don't really have a clue of whether or not more collapse might happen, or whether not there is a lava lake that is starting to form or whether new vents are forming.

- [Ben] Pretty tight today.

(helicopter blades beating) (adventurous instrumental music) - [Narrator] Kilauea is a beautiful killer.

A blast of the volcano's sulfur dioxide fumes can suffocate.

A step in the wrong direction can end your day even quicker.

- I don't like this area here because it's obviously overhung.

I don't think it is here, but we should walk over here and take a look back.

- [Ben] Sounds good.

So, this all happened since when?

- Last few months.

This wasn't here the last time I was out here.

You can see some large cracks in here that do attach to the edge of the crater, and they run through rubbly stuff.

So, this out here, we wouldn't want to get near that, that's pretty unstable.

- [Ben] So, right about here-- - [Mike] I think right in here is pretty good.

- [Narrator] It's a two hundred foot drop to the crater floor, a gap the team hopes to leap with LIDAR.

The laser will bombard the targeted region with 2,500 pulses per second.

- [Mike] Okay, lets go.

- [Ben] This is pretty cool.

- [Mike] Not many people have this job.

Alright, it's done.

- [Narrator] In roughly an hour, the first results are in.

- [Mike] That actually looks pretty good.

- [Ben] Doesn't look bad.

- [Mike] I think that looks pretty good, okay.

- [Narrator] The key to this scan is how it compares to those past... (upbeat instrumental music) A year ago, LIDAR provided this scan of the crater floor.

Days later, the team took a second scan, shown in green.

In it, the floor plummets more than 80 feet.

Where did the missing magma go?

On cue, new vents opened up a mile downslope from Pu'u O'o.

They released millions of gallons of lava in one week.

Kilauea had shown once again the power it wields.

The lava, unleashed, transforms the earth.

Along its way, from cone to sea, it is a force of change, leaving in its wake a course of destruction and creation.

(calm acoustic music) The volcano sculpts a surreal moonscape.

Huge rocks, ferried on the backs of flows, tower over barren plains.

(calm acoustic music) It's windy, it's hot.

The trees are long gone.

But clues to a greener past linger, trunks made of stone; the last remnants of a lush forest.

A mold forms when lava engulfs a tree, and cools before the tree ignites.

(reflective instrumental music) An optimist rears its fragile head.

These colonists are the offspring of survivors.

(reflective instrumental music) A chance diversion in the lava's course can leave defiant oases amid the devastation.

They're called kipukas (keh-poo-kahs). Often, hundreds of years older than the surrounding wastelands, a kipuka is an ecological time capsule.

(birds chirping) Some species living here in isolation even become genetically distinct.

(birds chirping) Hawaiian honeycreepers are seriously threatened.

But at the kipukas, they find haven.

The nene (nay-nay), the Hawaiian state bird, currently numbers just 500-plus in the wild.

These enclaves are a respite.

Though most kipukas succumb to the inevitable.

(crackling) Those kipukas that survive the hellfire are left to endure another plague... They've been plundering the biological treasure of the kipukas for 30 years.

Yellowjacket wasps were introduced to Hawaii accidentally, a human-made disaster only humans can stop.

- [Man] Did you remember those extra wicks?

- [Woman] Yes, I got 'em in the pack.

- [Narrator] The eco swat team is here.

- [Man] This has been one of the most active sights this year.

- [Narrator] Biologists David Foote and Erin Wilson are going to battle for these fragile habitats.

- What we're really concerned about is the impact of the wasps on the local insect fauna.

- [Narrator] Fiercely aggressive, highly cooperative.

For their prey, yellowjackets are an overwhelming adversary.

They tear the heads off their victims.

The insect populations of the kipukas are being decimated.

And so go the forest birds that feed on them, and the plants that rely on them as pollinators.

- The wasps come in, and they act as vacuum cleaners essentially.

They go through the foliage, and they clean the foliage of insects, and they bring them back to their hive.

- [Narrator] Where that hive is, is the question.

To find out, the team lays a trap.

Wasps have a hearty appetite.

- Erin's putting out some chicken meat, and I think it's gonna probably get picked up pretty fast.

(buzzing) So, this worker here, he's got a big ball, he's just about to take off.

Here he goes, okay, follow him.

Over by the bare rock. - Alright.

- We're going to follow it as far as we can, then we're going to put down some more chicken, follow them again.

And we're going to leapfrog until we find the nest.

- [Narrator] The chase is on... - [David] There they go.

(upbeat instrumental music) - [Erin] Back here.

They're heading this way.

I think it's right in front of you.

- [David] I see it.

(buzzing) - [Narrator] The nest is buried.

Its size is anyone's guess.

David suspects the worst.

Hey Anton, can you help us treat this nest?

- [Anton] 10-4, copy.

- [Narrator] So, the team prepares for war.

- Wasps are very good at finding escaping heat from your suit.

The smallest tear in your suit or your glove will lead to escaping body heat, and that's exactly where the wasps will go.

(suspenseful instrumental music) - They're really coming out now, look at that.

They're getting defensive, and they're flying around us, and I think that if we're here long enough we might get stung.

- [Narrator] In their native climes of the American northwest, yellowjackets last only a single season, so their nests rarely grow bigger than a basketball.

But Hawaii's warmer weather has spawned a monster, wasps that winter over and build colonies that could be ten times the size.

- [David] They're actually getting pretty darn aggressive here.

There are at least wasps around us right now, and there'll be more soon.

This is a nest that we need to destroy today.

Can you get a good shot in there, Anton?

- [Anton] Yeah, I can.

- [Narrator] For many exterminators, being environmentally friendly is not a priority.

But this team uses a mint oil spray, which is non-toxic, except to insects.

- [Erin] Alright.

(pensive instrumental music) - [Narrator] A few days later the team returns.

- [David] We're back here this morning to excavate the nest.

It's larger than we thought it was.

And so what we're going to do is try to go in as quickly as is possible and expose the combs, get 'em out of the ground, so the wasps aren't so aggressive.

- [David] Okay... They're really not so bad as I worried they would be so far.

Looks like they were carrying out dead larvae when they were moving out of this comb.

There's also some dead workers here right around the entrance.

- [Narrator] The guards have all been killed or disoriented.

- [David] We're looking now at a colony that's been mostly destroyed.

- [Narrator] But there's no victory unless they capture the queen.

- [David] You can see right here, the queen.

And she's got a very large abdomen.

She's probably packed with eggs right now.

Put her into a vial here.

- [Narrator] One stray queen could start a new colony.

Though David wipes out about 50 colonies a year, he'll never be able to eradicate them.. - [David] Okay, we can get this stuff back to the lab.

- [Narrator] In the shadow of the volcano, lives a world under siege.

Whether the threat is invasive... Or explosive.

(weighty instrumental music) Kilauea demands vigilance.

- [Matt] You have to remember that it's working day and night.

Lava never sleeps.

- [Narrator] For geologist, Matt Patrick, 9 to 5 is 24-7.

He's with the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Matt is a latter-day diviner.

His way is guided by the mysterious path of the lava.

Just underfoot is a sprawling furnace.

Matt is walking on fire.

- Directly below me right now there is a flowing lava stream that is erupting from the vent 10 kilometers upstream.

It's coming down hill, it's passing through this coastal tube system, and it's eventually making its way to the ocean entry there where you see the steam plume.

- [Narrator] As lava runs down the volcano's slopes, its upper layer cools and forms a roof.

The now closed conduit insulates the fluid lava beneath, keeping it hot and viscous for its journey to the sea.

Matt's job is to track the flow.

But how do you chart an invisible course?

(whirring) The answer is a hi-tech divining rod.

VLF, or Very Low Frequency, detects the lava's electromagnetic pulse.

- So right now, we're basically right over the lava stream in the tube.

The flow stream here is maybe two or three meters wide, maybe a meter in depth.

(whirring) And it's flowing about six miles an hour or so.

- [Narrator] But sometimes the lava can't be contained.

(pensive instrumental music) - [Matt] Periodically, when you have pulses of lava coming through, they can rupture the tube.

And they come out as surface flows, which are a hazard.

When you know where the tube is, you know where these potential breakouts will originate.

- [Narrator] Breakouts, perilous breaches in the earth.

- [Matt] This is one of about a dozen skylights.

Skylights are collapses in the roof of a sub-surface lava tube.

And this gives us a view of the lava stream.

(whirring) And here is where we generally make our measurements of lava flow.

- [Narrator] Though Matt can only learn so much, from this vantage... (helicopter blades beating) - [Matt] With the naked eye, it's difficult to see where the tube is.

- [Narrator] But seen through a special camera... (laughs) - [Matt] It's a whole nother world.

- [Narrator] It's designed to detect thermal activity.

Blue is the coolest area... Red signals heat... White, hotter still.

It is a secret well kept.

Hawaii is burning.

- [Matt] With a thermal camera the tube shows up very clearly as a line of warm temperatures on the surface.

- [Narrator] When the summit is active, so are the lava flows below.

Lately those surges have been happening often, up to once a week.

In fact, in the last four years, the amount of magma coursing through the volcano has doubled.

- Kilauea, right now, is doing some really spectacular and unique things, particularly at the summit.

We're constantly seeing changes.

That's what's great about this job is coming in every day and seeing something new, and almost expecting the unexpected.

(birds chirping) - [Narrator] The mountain of fire is still shaping Hawaii.

A subtle shift in lava flow, and yesterday's outburst turns into today's cave.

(calm world music) Kazumura is the longest, deepest lava tube yet discovered on Earth.

Spelunker Harry Schick knows Kilaeau from the inside.

The foyer ceiling is draped with tree roots, reminders of how the volcano's destruction sparks new life.

The way opens into a vaulted chamber, 80 feet high, a cathedral of ribbed floors and twisting mazes.

(calm world music) Every step traces the furious flow that once coursed through here.

(calm world music) In Kazumura's depths, a violent past is reborn in strange, dark beauty.

- These are lava sickles, and lava sickles form when lava levels in the tube rise, they coat the ceiling.

When the lava levels drop you get drips.

The next time the lava levels rise, they coat the ceiling again, when they fall a second time you get drips on the drips.

So, the easiest way to think about these is to think about a candle dipped in wax.

You get one layer after another after another.

- [Narrator] Kazumura is quiet today.

But Harry is not alone.

They're called troglobites, insect cave dwellers.

The tube they inhabit may be just 350 years old... Yet in that short time, it's believed some evolved to be wholly unique.

(quirky instrumental music) Creatures such as the lava tube water treader, navigate the gloom.

A single antenna can smell, and hear, and detect humidity.

A measure of how it has adapted; this 'water-treader' doesn't tread water at all... It scavenges the cave floor.

(slow instrumental music) The cave cricket favors the carcasses of hapless animals, who wander in and perish here.

The cricket lives in the darkest reaches.

Its vestigial eyes are no use in detecting that there's a danger above.

The cave wolf spider has a remarkably varied diet to partake of here.

It is the apex predator of a volcanic world.

People are less resilient.

(gentle acoustic music) This is an oasis of human activity, that is, it was.

That black line isn't lava... It's an old street.

Royal Gardens was once a thriving community.

The volcano changed that.

Now, it has one hold-out.

Meet Jack Thompson.

(slow blues music) - [Jack Voiceover] Well, when I first moved in, there was green all the way to the ocean, and the coast line was lined with coconut palms.

It was the most beautiful place I ever saw.

- [Narrator] The greenery has given way to a mile of lava stretching to the sea.

(slow blues music) Since 1983, Kilauea has steadily consumed this suburb.

- There were several hundred people living in here and most of them family people and surfers.

And little by little, everybody's left.

It's like any neighborhood.

You put up with whatever goes on in the neighborhood, whether it's drive-by shootings, or lava, fire, or whatever.

It's just like any other house in America in any other subdivision, except I can watch the lava from here going into the ocean.

- [Narrator] No man is an island.

When supplies run low, there's only one thing to do.

(hard rock music) Where the rubber meets the road, it's all good.

But when the road runs out... - Now, the hard part.

- [Narrator] Jack's is the ultimate road less-traveled.

His trek takes about two treacherous hours.

When he reaches town, he can buy only as much as he can carry.

But Jack's not about to move.

- I've never been afraid of anything up here.

It's a paradise, what can I say?

And if the lava comes, I just step out of the way, and let Madame Pele have it.

(reflective instrumental music) - [Narrator] Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.

In the end, she always has the last word.

If only we had ears to hear her.

- [Milton] For decades we thought that Kilauea was quiescent.

And then we put some instruments out in early 2000, and we got sound out of it.

We said, 'Wow, what's making that sound?'

- [Narrator] Geophysicist, Milton Garces (gar-sis), is trying to hear the song of the volcano.

First, he has to capture its voice.

He places microphones near Kilauea's active vents.

Deep below looms a choir.

To raise their voices takes an extraordinary instrument.

- This is one of the best microphones in the world.

A more sensitive version of it is also used for monitoring clandestine nuclear tests.

- [Narrator] Like an underground bomb, volcanic activity produces pressure waves that can emanate through solid rock.

They travel once every two seconds, so slowly, they fall a hundred times below the range of what's audible to humans.

Infrasonic technology lets us hear.

- This volcano's making sound continuously.

(hissing) Every time there's a fissure eruption, littoral explosions, and gas piston events... (hissing) All this different processes create sound.

There's a continuous song, a very diverse song.

(soft instrumental music) - [Narrator] Milton loves the music of Kilauea.

But he's here at the service of science.

What do the sounds mean?

(distorted sounds) Back in his audio lab, Milton gives new meaning to rock music.

To make the volcano's song audible, he speeds it up two hundred times.

Visualizations help him match sounds to events.

- So, you hear that right there?

That is the lava tube system. (whirring) It's the gas inside the lava tube, the resulting conduit, that's getting excited acoustically and it's just ringing.

- [Narrator] Powering the volcano Kilauea is an intricate matrix of underground systems.

Milton is trying to distinguish them.

Recently he got a chance.

(slow world music) 12 miles west of the volcano's vent, Pu'u O'o, is the summit crater, called Halemaumau (hally-mao-mao). Calm for nearly a century, it signaled its reawakening in early 2008.

An enormous plume drifted downslope, putting a whole island on alert.

(slow instrumental music) Then, a violent explosion tore a hundred foot hole.

Ash and huge boulders, some weighing almost three tons, rocketed 200 feet out of the crater.

Scientists braved the scene to collect fresh lava.

The samples, they hoped, would help them determine how this vent, how this eruption, connects back to Pu'u O'o's.

But Milton had another way.

His mics were there.

- So, what you're listening to is Pu'u O'o, the main crater, ringing at very low frequencies, and then, right around here, this high frequency signal kicks in.

There's a vent in there that just kicks on in some response to the volume flow of the volcanic system.

It opened up with a bang, and from then on it's been radiating sound continuously.

(distorted ringing) When we first heard this sound, it was like an excitement of a new beginning.

Something has happened that hasn't happened in almost a hundred years.

The Halemaumau sound is beautiful, in terms of its tonal structure, in terms of its harmonics.

It's almost like a musical instrument.

Halemaumau is just a natural born singer.

Milton calls her song Pele's chant.

- Instead of a song that has a clear beginning and end, it's a continuous tale of change and transformation.

It tells a story.

It tells us about itself.

The story of transformation, of flow.

And we don't know where it will go next.

- [Narrator] That story, for Milton, rings loud and clear.

(soft hissing) For Matt, it's a secret shared in a whisper.

(soft hissing) - When it's quiet and all you hear is the sound of the ejecta falling on the cone... (blasting) It really gives you a sense that something powerful is going on.

(tranquil instrumental music) It does seem more alive at night.

- [Narrator] The mournful grays and blacks of day are banished.

(tranquil instrumental music) Through twisting arteries, the volcano's lifeblood pulses.

(tranquil instrumental music) The lava has come far; from its violent release, down across the fields, nothing could stop it, except the one force that is its measure, the sea.

(hissing) - What we have here are explosions at the ocean entry building a littoral cone, and littoral basically means coast.

- [Narrator] When water and lava get trapped together in a tube, steam pressure builds then explodes.

(loud hissing) Now, after seven months, the tube from one of the new vents, 'Fissure D', has at last reached the sea.

(hissing) (pensive music) Kilauea's shoreline is today a battle zone.

- The explosions we've been seeing over the last two weeks have been particularly violent.

These are some of the largest explosions people who have worked here for a long time have ever seen.

The lava has been well insulated on its journey here from the cone, so it's lost little heat.

Now, 2,000 degree molten rock meets 80 degree water, a volatile mix. (loud hissing) The steam also creates waterspouts... Miniature tornadoes that can tower over 200 feet.

(pensive music) This is a place to avoid.

(adventurous music) Filmmaker, Paul Atkins, is heading straight for it.

- Here we go... - [Narrator] Paul has been documenting Kilauea for 25 years.

- Over there the water's steaming.

(adventurous instrumental music) - [Narrator] His plan today, to dive right in, and catch Kilauea's grand entry underwater.

- The key to filming this thing is to get here within a few days when lava has just started to enter the ocean.

It's a nice big plume, so that's a good sign.

We know it's going into the sea.

We filmed it about 25 years ago, and we've been waiting another 25 years for the conditions to be right so we can get some real high quality shots of this.

(hissing) - [Narrator] Swimming with lava is going to be a challenge.

- Looks promising.

Looks like it's really pumping though.

Oo, wow, that is hot.

It's like hot water to my hand.

Like turning on the hot water.

(hissing) You can see how the water's steaming like for 100 yards out beyond the flow here.

That water is scalding hot.

But underneath it, the water's cooler, and it's divable, it's swimmable.

So, what you have to do is, just to get to the flow front to film, you have to slip under that scalding hot water.

It'd be nice to approach it from the bottom if we can.

- [Man] Right, exactly.

- We got the seal proof filter in.

- [Man] Okay.

- [Paul] Let's get suited up.

- [Narrator] In just four months, the new flow has built a 13 acre shelf, known as a bench.

But its foundation is unstable.

Paul wouldn't risk this dive without a safety partner.

(weighty instrumental music) - [Paul Voiceover] What happens in these ocean entries is that the lava builds a crumbly kind of bench of cooling lava, and then it eventually collapses.

You'll be caught in this turbulent kind of landslide of lava rocks, that would just, you know, it would be fatal.

(pensive music) - [Narrator] A once-vibrant reef being engulfed by lava, is now laid to waste.

(weighty music) Raining down is volcanic shrapnel, fallout from the collision of extremes ahead.

Then, Paul and Kilauea meet.

(serene instrumental music) It's called pillow lava.

Lava hardens, while lava surges within, so it bursts into another balloon, and another.

(serene instrumental music) (hissing) (waves crashing) (creaking) (crackling) Suddenly, a landslide... (suspenseful music) (crashing) (muffled yelling) (pensive music) A narrow escape.

- [Paul] Amazing.

- [Richard] That was amazing.

That was pretty insane.

- Oh, my god.

There were real big landslides happening.

We had to leave the area.

- It was one of the scaredest I've been on these dives actually, that first one.

- All of a sudden, the whole bottom gave way.

Just slid down beneath us.

- [Narrator] At great risk, Paul has brought back visions of nature at its most primal.

A volcano in the act of creation.

Its lava is delivered from summit to sea.

(tranquil instrumental music) Kilauea destroys so Hawaii may be reborn.

The lava turns to rock, and becomes the perfect purchase for coral.

(auspicious instrumental music) In time, reefs will bloom anew... Drawing marine life in dazzling display.

(auspicious instrumental music) It is a story old as Earth... Forged in rock... And flame.

Science may one day fathom the volcano's awesome powers, but Kilauea will never be subdued.

Not so long as the mountain of fire burns on.