Someone Fell 70 Feet Into Hawaii’s Kīlauea Volcano. It Could’ve Been Worse

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A recent shot of the crater walls of Halema‘uma‘u, embedded within the summit caldera of Kīlauea volcano.

HVO/USGS

The record-breaking eruption of Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano may have officially stopped a few months back – dramatically capping off 35 years’ worth of near-continuous eruptive activity to boot – but that doesn’t mean the volcano is now danger-free. Far from it, in fact.

The caldera, the cauldron-shaped depression at the top, for example, still remains unstable after spending months periodically deflating as the magma beneath kept being siphoned out to the volcano’s flanks. That means it’s a pretty bad idea to hang around near the rim, but it seems that even a metal guardrail around it didn’t stop one overly curious visitor from taking an erroneous leap to peek over the edge.

As reported by various outlets, including The New York Times, a 32-year-old enlisted soldier was trying to peer over the caldera’s rim last week when he slipped. He fell 21 metres (70 feet) into the pit and was seriously injured. He didn’t harm himself on any lava, though; there wouldn’t be any inside the caldera at this stage, and all the lava within the Halema’uma’u crater within the caldera drained away months back. This time, it was just gravity and jagged rocks doing all the work.

According to a statement by the staff of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the fall victim – who is currently recovering in hospital – was a soldier who was on the island as part of a training exercise. He was extracted when rescuers rappelled down into the caldera to winch him back up.

“Visitors should never cross safety barriers, especially around dangerous and destabilized cliff edges,” SAID Chief Ranger John Broward. “Crossing safety barriers and entering closed areas can result in serious injuries and death.”

This isn’t the first time someone’s fallen into Kīlauea’s caldera. Someone else died back in October 2017 after tumbling into the pit, which back then was far shallower. With that in mind, this soldier was profoundly lucky not to have died.

This story immediately reminded me of a completely different volcano, one named Ol Doinyo Lengai over in Tanzania. This sits over the East African Rift, the point at which the continent is being slowly torn apart by a rising plume of superheated mantle material. One day, a new ocean will appear there. For now, the strange geochemistry unfolding at that spot means that you get some pretty strange volcanology, including at Ol Doinyo Lengai, meaning the “Mountain of God” to the local Maasai people.

Per WIRED, the lava here never gets hotter than 480-590°C (896°F-1,094°F), which is several hundred of degrees chillier than the stuff that regularly came out of Kīlauea. This is thanks to the strange chemistry of the rocks that create its magma, which is rich in calcium and sodium. The sodium-heavy proportions of this recipe make this lava, in volcanological parlance, a “natrocarbonatite.” It also doesn’t have many of the silica chains that keep regular magma/lava fairly viscous. Both factors mean that it’s pretty cold and extremely fluid; it erupts black like a cursed water fountain, and weathers to an ethereal white hue.

Cool as it is all by itself, the reason I’m mentioning it here is because someone once fell into this eerie, frigid lava back in 2007, arguably a far more frightening event that what just transpired at Kīlauea. Falling into lava is generally not advised for many, fairly obvious reasons, but in this case, the trip came with a surprising twist. According to the Global Volcanism Program, the local Maasai porter that slipped into an active lava flow at the site was severely burned and injured by the event, but he ultimately survived.

Most people that tumble into the hearts of active volcanoes, as you might expect, don’t survive, or are at the very least badly hurt. The moral of the story, then, is to have your wits about you. If you’re on a volcano you’ve been up onto before, don’t step anywhere you aren’t familiar with. If you aren’t a volcanologist or seasoned explorer, don’t go up a volcano alone. If a barrier or sign suggests you don’t go past it, don’t go past it. If authorities tell you not to venture near a volcano, do what they say.

Volcanoes are not the sorts of places that reward recklessness, nor do they look kindly on clumsiness.

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