Roasting Marshmallows Over Lava
And Other Adventures in Time Travel
by Guest Blogger Kevin H. Posey
The Earth is 4.55 billion years old. If you’re one of those who thinks it’s only 6000 years old, stop reading now. You’ll just get upset when I start talking about how the continents are on plates that drift, or if I let slip that the Earth is round (though not actually a perfect sphere).
Despite the planet’s advanced age, it is constantly refreshing its skin—like a Hollywood star. The fuel for this renewal is the molten rock that bubbles up from within the mantle. In spots, this mantle is close enough to the surface to burst through via a hotspot. I could say something about teen acne, but I’d rather not dwell on that part of my youth.
One such hotspot is the chain of islands currently terminating on or just off Hawaii’s so-called “Big Island.” I say currently, because it’s still moving. Or rather the plate above it is moving. You can see its progress in a chain of islands and submerged seamounts stretching to Midway Island and onwards to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The Big Island is big because it is still being built; the islands to the northwest are progressively smaller because they are no longer being renewed, and the sea is gradually reclaiming them.
So if you’re curious as to what Earth was like when it was all new, not just pockmarked with hotspots, the southeast coast of the Big Island is a good place to check out. Just bear in mind it’s in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean, the Pacific.
Getting close to the lava of Hawaii is a tricky business. Most of the lava sources lie within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. For some reason, the park rangers aren’t too keen on tourists wandering near Kilauea Crater, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. This may have to do with the low melting point of the typical American tourist combined with the speeds at which pyroclastic flows can be expelled from the crater. Most tourists typically cannot outrun a volcanic blast, or even an ill-tempered Nene, the official state bird of Hawaii. As the Nene is generally a placid goose, it would be pretty funny to see one chasing a portly tourist.
Despite the efforts of park rangers to protect visitors, Hawaii’s volcano goddess, Pele, has no respect for property boundaries and government red tape. She will occasionally send a bit of lava many miles down from the mountains to the coast, where completely eliminating public access isn’t feasible. One such lava flow from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent (good luck pronouncing that) made a beeline for the ocean in 2016.
This particular vent in the side of Kilauea is a persistent hazard for homeowners along the southeast coast. The drive along the coastal ring road terminates here in the midst of a destroyed village that was burned and buried in recent years by repeated lava flows.
This is also the location of the most optimistic real estate seller on the planet. The homeowner had a For-Sale sign on a house that had clearly been rebuilt after a very recent, though now hardened, lava flow. Given that more flows through here are virtually certain, how likely is it that State Farm won’t have any issue with insuring this property? Luckily, the Big Island’s real estate disclosure forms have to warn of the possible presence of hazardous gases and lava tubes. And you thought termites were destructive.
Where the ring road terminates, the local authorities set up a temporary parking area many miles away from the active flow. This is smart, since visitors may have trouble retrieving their car if it’s slowly melting into goo. Beyond this point, those seeking lava must pass through several barricades.
At the first barricade, enterprising folks sell water and rent bikes to those willing to make the seven mile, one-way trip (literally, if one took a wrong step) across the shadeless, blackened terrain. If you’re cheap, you can walk the whole way. I am, so I ended up walking across a griddle on Pele’s stove.
At the second barricade, stern-faced officials check to make sure everyone has plenty of water. Those who don’t may go no further. They don’t want to rescue more dumb tourists than they absolutely have to.
For the first two hours, the hike is a fascinating walk through a vast plain of black rock, congealed into weird swirls and shapes. For you Vin Diesel fans, the sun-blasted world in The Chronicles of Riddick is a fair approximation, but this has less silly dialogue. Step off the gravel road and you’ll quickly realize something odd about this black rock: it’s actually glass. Each step yields a crunching sound—like walking across a pile of broken wine glasses. The edges formed by the solidifying lava are sharp, so it’s a really, really, bad thing to fall.
After two hours of this, the landscape becomes a bit surreal. It’s still a swirl of black lava, but now there’s no greenery to be seen. Anywhere. This is the world before life climbed out of the sea, the Cambrian Period: our ancestors can only swim. Dinosaurs are still hundreds of millions of years into the future. Oxygen levels are 63% lower. This hike is now time travel to the deep past, but with Merrill hiking shoes instead of a TARDIS.
When I visited, the lava hadn’t reached the road, and no signs directed visitors to the lava. It’s unsafe and moving, so how good an idea would a sign be? But no worries, for cheerful passersby on bikes (cheerful because they didn’t have to walk for hours) can helpfully point out a group of people roughly one mile off the road! That’s the lava party.
Recall that all this black rock is basically glass. Now imagine hiking across it—for a mile. How does one traverse a black, rocky swirl, like a frozen hurricane of broken glass? The landscape looks flat from a distance, but up close it undulates like waves in an ocean. Ten feet vertically separate the crest of some waves from the trough. The group in the distance periodically disappears behind the wave, making navigation difficult.
When at last the group is within earshot, they aren’t all standing together, but are actually spread out in front of a dark, gray wave virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding black landscape. This is what fresh earth looks like when it first cools: a thin, gray layer obscuring the molten red and yellow heart beneath. Our time travel has taken us to the very beginning of the Earth, for the whole world once looked like this. Except there was nobody poking a walking stick into it back then.
Most walking sticks are made of wood. Wood burns at 190F to 260F. Basaltic lava such as that in Hawaii can hit temperatures of 1832F to 2282F. So, what happens when it is poked with a walking stick—as a woman did while I watched?
The walking stick instantly becomes a torch. Its owner frantically tries to beat it against the ground to extinguish the flames. Pele 1, Tourist 0.
At the front edge of this river of melted planet, bits of oozing flame peek out and drip down in gooey droplets. This is where temperatures are hottest. It’s also apparently a great place to roast marshmallows.
Given the distances covered to reach this spot, not to mention the gear needed (marshmallows, skewers that won’t instantly melt, etc.), roasting marshmallows is not a spur-of-the-moment activity. It requires planning. I don’t know where the intrepid cook I observed was from, but given his planning and nonchalance as he went about his cooking, I’m guessing he was no tourist. I edged closer to see if his efforts were working, and noticed that he seemed a lot better with his lava than I had ever been as roasting, well, anything as a Boy Scout.
I couldn’t help but wonder if ancient Hawaiians had ever roasted food this way. The lava on this day was moving slower than a TSA line at the Atlanta airport. But methane gas buildups from cooked vegetation beneath the flow, sulfur dioxide gas from the volcano, and hydrochloric acid formed when it hits the ocean make this the world’s most dangerous kitchen—unless you include one with an angry Gordon Ramsay in it.
As dusk fell, the lava’s origin became apparent. In the far distance, across the black plain there stood a long cliff with waterfall of fire cascading over it. The lava currently roasting marshmallows before me had slowly journeyed over that cliff after breaching the surface at the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent. Its destination was the Pacific Ocean, where it will help the Big Island resist the steady erosion of waves that will ultimately obliterate it.
Dusk also brings new risks: getting lost in the deepening gloom and tripping on unseen hazards in this field of broken glass. Luckily, there’s an app for this: a flashlight app, to be specific. As for directions, the ocean is hard to miss even in the dimming light. The ring road is in that direction. Hit the ocean and you’ve gone too far.
The only light now is an almost-full moon and stars. This is the sky before humans figured out how to push back the darkness, for there are no city lights, security lights, or car headlights here. Just the headlight of the occasional passing cyclist, cheerfully biking back after a much briefer outing to the lava.
If you’ve nearly run out of water, it all makes for a much trippier hike back. Never mind how I know that.