As the Flying Classroom makes its way down the North American side of the Ring of Fire—past volcanoes in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California—let's take a look at a volcano in another state: Hawai'i.

In July, Barrington chartered a helicopter on Hawaii's Big Island to get an aerial view of one of the most active eruptions on Earth. “We were the only chopper in the air that morning,” he recalls. “There was a low ceiling of clouds, so all commercial helicopter flights were cancelled.”

Given the weather, I figured he would’ve been worried about hovering over a lake of boiling lava. “Nah,” he said. The pilot, Captain Pete, was an ex-Marine. “Those pilots can fly.”

Photo by Dee Irving
Photo by Dee Irving

It took no more than twelve minutes to fly from Hilo to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. “At first, we were flying over forest,” said Barrington. “And then suddenly the forest turned into brown dirt. Every now and then you saw green plants and ferns growing back.”

Photo by Jenny Nichols
Photo by Jenny Nichols

To Barrington, the lava flows looked like cake batter spread across the plateau. “The new stuff was black like asphalt.” Older flows had been bleached brown by the sun. Steam and smoke belched from the earth, choking the air with the stench of rotting eggs and struck matches.

That matchstick smell is sulfur dioxide. It’s extremely toxic and one of the reasons why people can’t get near eruptions. Another reason is the heat. At 2100°F, the radiant heat was intense. “Like passing your hand over a pot of boiling water,” said Barrington. “You could feel it through the windows of the helicopter.”

Soon they came upon what looked like a silver stream of mercury snaking down the plateau. Then, as Barrington recalls, “all of sudden there was a hole in the batter. A bright orange hole so bright you needed sunglasses!”

Photo by Dee Irving
Photo by Dee Irving

Helicopter pilots use their feet to control lateral movement; their hands control pitch up and down. As Barrington remembers, Captain Pete was “dancing the salsa,” riding the thermals of heat rising off the molten rock. It’s no joke. One false move or shift of the wind and the blades could have slowed, warped, and sliced off the helicopter’s tail, sending the helicopter and its passengers into the lava, Super Mario Bros. style.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The team circled the eruption for about forty minutes before heading back to Hilo.

Courtesy Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Later that day, Barrington drove into Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to learn more about the science and history of volcanoes from ranger Jay Robinson. After flying over Pu‘u ‘O‘o in the morning, Jay took him to see the island’s other active eruption site: Halema‘uma‘u Crater.

Amelia Earhart visited Halema‘uma‘u before she made the first-ever solo flight from Hawai'i to the mainland on January 8, 1935. Now, 79 years later, Barrington was standing where she did, a few months before the flight of the first-ever Flying Classroom.

“What are some of the biggest misconceptions about volcanoes?” Barrington asked Jay.

“That they explode out the top and are very destructive and kill everybody,” said the ranger. “A Hawaiian volcano is different. Out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, this is not a spot where two continental plates are crashing together. This is a hot spot. It erupts from the sea floor, spreads out, and after building up to 18,000 feet above the sea floor, it breaks the surface and continues building the mountain higher.”

“In Hawai’i,” Jay said, “we have what we call fissure eruptions. Instead of shooting out the top, the lava will spurt from big cracks in the sides, two to three miles deep. Magma will come up out of there, a little at first, and then more and more until it’s shooting up hundreds of feet high. That’s what happened in 1969 at Halema‘uma‘u and between 1983-86 where Pu‘u ‘O‘o is today.”

“What is magma?” Barrington asked.

“We never see magma. No one’s ever seen magma. Magma is what you call lava before it reaches the surface.”

“Well, then what is lava?”

“There are all kinds of lava. If it’s a volcano where two continental plates are coming together, the lava is going to have more silica in it. It’s stickier; it’s not as hot. Here, our lava is lower in silica, which makes it hotter and less viscous, so it can flow more easily away from its source. Typically, lava doesn’t flow very fast. It might take a month or so to flow seven miles to the ocean.”

One famous lava flow completely overtook a two-mile stretch of Chain of Craters Road on its way to the sea:

Photo by Jenny Nichols
Photo by Jenny Nichols

“Is it true that we’re standing on the largest mountain on Earth?” asked Barrington.

“No,” said Jay. “We’re standing on Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. The largest mountain on Earth is back behind us in the clouds. We call it Mauna Loa, which means ‘long mountain’ in Hawaiian. Before Kilauea ever existed, Mauna Loa rose up from the sea floor and kept rising to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. From its sea floor base to the summit above the water, it stands about 32,000 feet tall. It’s taller than Mt. Everest. If you took Mt. Everest about fifty miles offshore and set it down on the sea floor, it wouldn’t rise as high.”

As for Kilauea, “it grew up on the shoulder of Mauna Loa,” said Jay. “It’s like a young kid. It’s very active. It’s erupting here at Halema‘uma‘u and about 17 miles away at Pu‘u ‘O‘o.”

In fact, the week before Barrington arrived, a new fissure opened up in the Pu‘u ‘O‘o crater, sending a stream of lava oozing north toward a neighboring town.

Photo by Challiss Vick
Photo by Challiss Vick

The history of Hawai’i is a history of these eruptions one after another: Mahukona, Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Kilauea. Offshore, a new kid is rising from the sea floor called Loihi. It’s still 3,000 feet below the waves, but one day it will probably break the surface and catch up to its siblings.

“How violent are these eruptions?” asked Barrington.

“These are huge, violent eruptions,” said Jay. “Everything around here—these forests around the edge—they weren’t here 100 years ago. The last violent eruption in 1790 sent up a cloud of ash so high and so dense that when it came back down, raging hot at 2000°F, it blasted out across the landscape and killed at least 150 warriors of the Hawaiian army, perhaps as many as 500. That makes Kilauea volcano the deadliest volcano in the United States.”

“Do these violent eruptions cause earthquakes and tsunamis?”

“There are lots of Hawaiian stories that document each of the events that happened as seen through the Hawaiian eyes,” said Jay. “They talk about the volcano goddess, Pele, being very angry at her sister, so she killed her sister’s boyfriend, Lohi'auipo.”

Jay pointed to a wide, barren area with steam venting from the ground. “That’s where the death occurred. Pele’s sister, Hiʻiakaikapoliopele, was so angry that she started stomping the ground, throwing rocks, digging her sister out of the volcano. Each stomp represented an earthquake; each digging, an explosive volcanic eruption. She did this seven times. She was about to go through the last layer, which would have allowed the ocean waters to come up and kill her sister Pele, but she was talked out of it by a friend.”

Photo by Jenny Nichols
Photo by Jenny Nichols

“These are mythical stories?” asked Barrington.

“They’re not mythical. Scientists have gone back and looked at these stories and said, ‘Wow, this lines up with this and this and this. We’ve done studies and proven that these eruptions happened.’ And the Hawaiian reaction is, ‘Glad you finally figured it out. We’ve known it for a long time. It’s in our chants.’”

“Is there a chant for Pele?” our videographer Jenny asked.

“There are many chants for many different reasons,” Jay said. “One of our favorite chants is called E Hō Mai. It’s not specifically for Pele, but when we’re entering into a new place where we want to learn, we’ll offer this chant. It means:

Let me understand the world above and all around me. Let me understand the meaning of the song and the hidden meaning within that song. Let that understanding come. Let it come. Let it come.

“So this evening, as we’re facing this beautiful eruption glowing at night, we’re asking to let that understanding and that peace come to us.”

Jay turned to face the lava. He took a deep breath and exhaled. And then he began:

E hō mai ka ‘ike mai luna mai ē

‘O nā mea huna no‘eau o nā mele ē

E hō mai, e hō mai, e hō mai ē

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