My heart goes out to the people of Hawaii whose homes have been consumed by lava or hammered by plummeting boulders; those dodging clouds of poisonous gas or dusted with a pall of ash. Nonetheless, I find the eruption of Kilauea unspeakably beautiful, a thing of wonder.
My passion isn’t rooted in deep knowledge of geology. Quite the opposite. Everything I know about the origins of terra firma could be written on a postcard with plenty of room remaining for a stamp and return address. Years ago, a friend well on his way to his doctorate in geology gave me a tutorial during an alpine hike. We camped one evening at the base of a rocky summit, and he read aloud the life story of that mountain from the strata and striations of the sunset-washed stone. The lesson was mostly lost on me.
I need something simpler, which Kilauea can provide. There, new rock is born in real time. You can watch from a safe distance as it rises from the mantle of the planet and spreads a new crust over the existing, slightly older one. After a cooling-off period, you can walk on it, still warm from the oven.
When the fresh rock flows down the slope of the volcano to the sea, it meets the water with a bang. Instantly turned to steam by the heat of the lava, the ocean explodes in a plume of gas and water and brand-new glassy black sand. Benches of newborn ground slowly extend the reach of Hawaii’s Big Island to the south and east.
The ongoing spectacle is part of a continuous eruption that began 35 years ago, on Jan. 3, 1983. When I visited the volcano in 1989, the duration of the Earth-building event was already noteworthy — but now, nearly 30 years later and still going strong, it is one of the longest uninterrupted eruptions in half a millennium on Hawaii.
During that span, Kilauea has created some 570 acres of previously nonexistent dry land. Though the rock is barren now, given time it will break down into the fecund soil that with rain and sunshine make a paradise of the Hawaiian islands.
You see, the whole island chain was created this same way. In 1963, a scientist named J. Tuzo Wilson published a brilliant paper in the Canadian Journal of Physics in which he theorized that a part of the Earth’s crust known as the Pacific Plate floats slowly to the west and north over a fixed “hot spot” of rising liquid rock. Building on Wilson’s insights, scientists have discovered dozens of additional hot spots around the globe, accounting for other archipelagoes such as the Galapagos Islands and the Azores. Though the details of hot-spot geology continue to be worked out, the geology-for-dummies version is as clear as a map of Hawaii.
As the tectonic plate of floating crust moves over the hot spot, volcanoes form on the ocean floor. Layer after layer of new rock pours forth — exactly the process on spectacular display in Hawaii now — until the accumulated mass breaks the surface of the waves and continues to climb. At 13,802 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is the highest point on Hawaii; long dormant, its million-year climb may be near its end.
Then the breaking down begins. Having moved away from the hot spot, the volcanic creation is gradually worn away by wind and waves. “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,” John Donne reflected, and the same truth applies in the mid-Pacific. The island we know as Maui was “the big island” a million years ago, before it began disappearing clod by clod and grain by grain. Five million years ago, the honor belonged to Kauai. The farther the islands drift from the hot spot, the more land washes or blows away, until the creation sinks back into the sea.
Meanwhile, the next great Hawaiian volcano is building itself some 20 miles southeast of Kilauea. Known as the Loihi Seamount, it has grown to within about 3,000 feet of the ocean surface. If you eat right and get plenty of exercise and figure out how to live another 50,000 years, you might walk on it someday.
So it’s not true that everything is accelerating in this world of ours. While we buzz about its surface like 7 billion gnats, Earth moves to its own rhythm, takes its own sweet time. Figuring out how to connect the two speeds, the eternity of eons and the urgency of today, is the beginning of wisdom. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. That’s the beauty and paradox and lesson of Kilauea, where forever is happening before our eyes.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.