Lava flows: You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them

Lava flows from Kilauea in Hawai`i move towards a home in Kalapana.

Whenever I think about the hazards posed by most lava flows, I tend to think about the opening scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Developers are planning to knock our hero Arthur Dent's house down and as a last ditch effort to stop its destruction, Arthur lies down in front of the bulldozer. The demolition supervisor, a certain Mr. Prosser, at one point asks Arthur if he knows how much damage the bulldozer might suffer if he just lets it roll over poor Mr. Dent. Arthur says he doesn't know and Mr. Prosser replies "none at all."

That is, in a nutshell, the hazard of lava flows. They can take out almost anything in their path, but really, you need to pull an Arthur Dent in most cases to put your life at risk*. Lava with low silica like a basalt will usually flow in one of two styles: runny pahoehoe and rubbly a'a. Whether you get pahoehoe or a'a is controlled by a number of factors including temperature of the lava, crystallinity, gas content, slope of the land surface (along with some other more minor factors), but even in its runny form (video), the pahoehoe, lava flows usually don't move too quickly - kilometers per hour at the fastest, more like meters to hundreds of meters per hour - and you can comfortably get out of the way. When they can become hazardous is when they are allowed to stay hot, either by traveling through a lava tube system underground (rock is a great thermal insulator) or by storing the lava in a lava lake and catastrophically releasing it (*such as what happened at Nyiragongo in 1977, killing over 1,000 people).

However, most of the time, lava flows are just destructive to property and plant life - slowly rumbling across the landscape like Mr. Prosser's bulldozer. A'a lava flows move like giant tank treads (video), with the main body of the flow overrunning the cooling nose, pushing that material underneath the lava flow. You can get lava flows of more silicic compositions, such as an andesite or rhyodacite, that have flow fronts that are tens to hundred meters tall, so if you can imagine a wall of hot rock 50 meters tall rumbling towards your home at a few meters a day, well, that is what some lava flows hazards are like. In Hawai`i, the pahoehoe and a'a lavas can easily inundate homes and infrastructure - as has been happening this week in the Kalapana subdivision on the slopes of Kilauea. There is little that can be done if a large lava flow heads into town - just hope that the flows misses your home so you can salvage what is left. If not, the lava flow will likely slowly engulf the home, crushing it and burning the remains.

So, not much can be done to stop a lava flow. There were attempts in the 1930-40s to bomb lava flows in Hawai`i to divert them or stop the flow, but that was, not surprisingly, unsuccessful. In very rare cases, lava flows have been diverted by setting up barriers, such as was done around Etna in Italy, or by pumping millions of liters of seawater on the lava flow to cool the flow front and change the direction of flow like was successfully done at Heimay in Iceland. However, beyond this, lava flows can be one of the most costly volcanic hazards in terms of property damage - not only will they destroy your home, but it will be buried and capped by hardened lava, so even soils take decades to recover. Yet, people still choose to build their homes on the slopes of Kilauea, knowing full well that the land they build on was once an active lava flow and more likely than not, these lava will return again to add to the Big Island.


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I would still live on the Big Island if I could, though not in Kalapana. Of course if you look at a map of the island you realize that there are few places truly out of reach of flows, particularly from Mauna Loa.
I'm surprised that no kook has suggested using a nuke to stop Kilauea. Not only did we have repeated calls from some who should no better to nuke the spewing well in the Gulf, but also a suggestion to nuke the oil shales to cook the kerogen to crude and release it. Ok that came from James R. Schlesinger, Nixon's defense secretary and Carter's Energy Sec, so I guess he would think along those lines!
Now I suppose someone will dig up such a suggestion..

meant "know better" of course, not "no better". Ughh

Do you know if anyone has tried to creat a "lava proof" structure? In essence, building something above ground that would transition into below-grade (dugout) and then finally into a cave if there are sufficient and deep enough successive flows. This would be an interesting engineering problem, considering the heat and weight of the lava, and then figuring out the systems issues (water, etc) once it is cool enough to live in. But if it worked, you could redevelop the gardens as sort of a Hawaiin Hobbit community (Kalapana shire?) which might have a couple of nice B&Bs for the more serious volcano enthusiasts. Afterall, they make a good business out of ice-hotels in Finland. A lava-tube inn on the big island might be hot prospect!

Oil slicks and inappropriate bombing; In 1967 the Torrey Canyon oil tanker (owned by Union Oil and leased to BP) went aground off the coast of Cornwall, UK. It was an environmental disaster killing and damaging much wildlife.

In an effort to disperse the slick, very strong detergents were initially used, then escalation to setting it on fire, and finally, bombing the slick in the vain hope of removing it. Eventually, they used Napalm.

Environmental management has changed somewhat!

The recent BP slick and your comments on bombing lava flows brought back strong memories of scraping oil off my legs during that summer on the Cornish beaches, whilst watching various planes line up in the sky begin their bombing runs.
More here:

Any time you live close to nature Volcanoes, Wildfire,
Earthquakes,etc. You have pretty good chance of dealing with
it. When I sold Real Estate on Oregon's south coast there was
a development that got around the local land use laws.
as you drove through it you looked UP on the sand dune and saw
driftwood. Now logic would say:"The Ocean has been there at
some time in the reasonably recent past." This was not missed on my Client who declined to buy....

I would think that maybe a flow like that shown in Kalapana could be diverted. It looks less than a meter thick, so maybe some prepositioned berms would do the trick? Also could you make a berm out of the flow by pouring water on it? What if the house was built on fireproof stilts, could it survive a flow going under it?

Of course your house surviving isn't always a good thing. I saw something about a guy whose house miraculously survived a previous flow, when all his neighbors were destroyed. It seemed initially like great luck, but he couldn't get an insurance settlement, and the house was now stranded without water, utilities, or road access.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Flows are too viscous (but surprisingly fast moving) for diversion. I am perplexed that moving the houses wasn't considered as an option - it's not rocket science. State government should be proactive along with insurance companies, as the state and county allowed the building of permitted homes in this subdivision, despite the risks.

Multiply the population by a large number and change "Kilauea" to "Sicily" ... or if you insist on something with that 'K' sound, Catania. Anyone have a photo of that old cathedral in Catania which is mostly buried by a lava flow?

By MadScientist (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Passerby, #8: "State government should be proactive along with insurance companies, as the state and county allowed the building of permitted homes in this subdivision, despite the risks."

Why? If the State of Hawaii was proactive, nothing would be built at all on the main island because of the potential hazards. If the States of California, Oregon and Washington were proactive re potential hazards, none would be allowed to live in those states.

But perhaps I read you wrong? Possibly what you meant was that State and Insurance companies have to inform people that, certainly, they can build their dream homes, BUT there will be no insurance and in the case of an emergency, they foot any kind of rescue at 100% themselves.

When it comes to hazardous industry such as oil refineries, fireworks factories, paint manufactures etc that in case of accident or disruption cause risk for third parties, I'm sure we're in agreement as to the role played by government.

By Henrik, Swe (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

@MadScientist #9, I do have photos of the old cathedral of Misterbianco, a town near Catania on the south flank of Etna, which was half buried by the lava flow of 1669:

As you will note the ruin of the Misterbianco cathedral has been once more destroyed by human activity (or the lack thereof), in recent years.

Catania itself was never totally destroyed by a lava flows, even the one of 1669 was largely deflected by the city walls and only a small portion of the city was destroyed. The cathedral of Catania survived, as is well illustrated in a beautiful fresco (which is, indeed in the cathedral):

But 24 years after the eruption, in 1693, a disastrous earthquake wrecked Catania and along with it most towns and villages in southeast Sicily.

One particular attraction, though it is poorly known to outsiders, is a restaurant near the harbor of Catania, where you can descend a staircase down into the 1669 lava flow and see the remains of a road and of buildings below the lava, which once stood near the city walls of Catania. There is a little subterranean river flowing as well, and you can sit on a table and have dinner in this unique setting, which I believe is unparalleled in the world.

As for the risk of lava flows of Etna inundating Catania, I think no lava will easily reach the center of the city because of the tremendous quantity of multistorey reinforced concrete buildings in the periphery of the town - these would provide significant obstacles to a lava flow and certainly slow its advance. Although Catania is suffering from neglect by its own people and administration and would become a heap of debris in case of a magnitude 7 earthquake (like 1693), it is not Goma (the big city invaded by lava flows from Nyiragongo in Congo in 2002), where most buildings were much smaller and less closely spaced than in Catania.

I am certainly worried for many of the smaller towns around Etna, which are much closer to the sites where lava could issue during flank eruptions, and which would offer less resistance than the vast amount of large, and relatively robust buildings surrounding Catania.

The difference I see between the houses close to Kilauea and what I remember about old houses in Sicily near Etana, is that the house in the picture above, which is about to go up in flames is a light-weight wooden structure, whereas old buildings in Sicily are often built with very thick walls in towns which have stood for centuries.
Oh dear, I sound like I am suggesting that one is less valuable than the other! It is sad for anyone losing their home but especially when they cannot rebuild easily nearby due to lack of land or finance. Haiti is a point in question at present. How do nations rebuild after a national geological event affecting so many? Is there an example of an area which has responded quickly and positively after such an event?

A year or two ago, while in Hawaii, we took a drive through the Kalapana subdivision. We had to drive through it on our way to see the lava pouring out of a tube and into the ocean.

In the older flow areas, they had already paved a main road, with intersections and street signs, where the old development had been! It was eerie to see where the old streets had been in a featureless plane. In one place, near the current flow, someone had rebuilt already, about a half-mile off the street! We had to walk across the pahoehoe and aa to get to the ocean's edge, and wondered HOW they had been able to get the materiels for a new house across the lava field. People love that area....

By parclair NoCal USA (not verified) on 29 Jul 2010 #permalink

OTP Wow. Never expected to read about Douglas Adams in this blog. He wrote so funny books and introduced me to british humour. He was a link to Monthy Puython and many othere great english comedians like Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers ... Unfortunately: No extraterrestrian volcano-activity was mentioned in his books The Hitch Hikers Guide of the Galaxy.

By Thomas Wipf (not verified) on 29 Jul 2010 #permalink

The Smell of Money

USGS Article: Living on Active Volcanos (1997)

Note the map of hazard zones.

The original Kalapana Gardens (also called Kalapana Vacation Homes, when first developed in 1960), decimated by repeated flows between 1983-1990.

By 2007, the land, covered in flows tens of feet deep, was being resold. The IDIOT state of Hawaii allowed the original landowners to retain property rights, waved or reduced taxes. They had been pressured by landowners and property development interests to retain the land in private hands, rather than to add it to the National Parks volcano reserve land holdings. Rebuilding in the Gardens started as early 2005, less than 15 years after the flows had completely inundated the area and surged into an adjacent planned development as well.

The home that went up in 2005 seemed to reassure developers and property owners that their once valuable land could be reclaimed.

Dumber and dumber.

Righto. In 2007, this article documents the resurgence of activity nearby and warnings issues by the USGS and State regarding risks to redevelopment.

Will Pele determine the future re-development of Kalapana?…

Recreating Kalapana Gardens: article on resurveying and laying down roads for redevelopement of land said to be valued at more than $10,000 an acre - even when it's only 5 miles from the worlds most active volcano.

Recreating Kalapana Gardens:
Article boasting about the satisfying work of redeveloping the lava flows for new homes.…

By the start of this year, 35 homes, housing 70 induhviduals, had been built in Kalapana Gardens.

Lava stops flowing toward homes at Kalapana Gardens Subdivision. News article from earlier this week.…

This loops us back to the point of Eriks blog entry yesterday.

Gary's lightweight wood home *could* have been moved after 2008 - when a large road, suitable for heavy truck traffic needed for redevelopment had been laid and before the new flows started that blocked off road access.

But the rub is that Gary was the straw man, the risk-taker who built that first house in 2005, on the lava flows covering the old Kalapana Gardens.

At the bottom of the boastful article on redeveloping Kalapana Gardens, we have the name of the person who represented the original home owners and helped push the recovery effort.

His was the house left standing from the 1990 lava flow.

As Lava Entombs Their Village, the People of Kalapana Accept Madame Pele's Fiery Verdict.,,20117695,00.html

Don was told by insurers that his policy wouldn't pay unless the home was incinerated by lava flows, as it was cut off from utilities. So you can see that Don would have a vested interest in promoting redevelopment of Kalapana Gardens.

From the article, and the mouth of the developer, who bought and sold property in Kalapan Gardens and who witnessed the destruction from her home in California, and who would also have considerable business interest in seeing Kalapana Gardens property values rise again:

'Ruth Duff saw one of her two doomed Kalapana houses go up in flames on the evening news when she was in California. "There were no guarantees that a volcano wouldn't happen," says Duff, who developed Kalapana Gardens with her late husband in 1967 and has bought and sold property there ever since. "But I never dreamed it would, or I wouldn't have bought back lots like I did." The banks were more mindful of the danger; they refused to write mortgages on homes in the development. "Everybody in there paid out of pocket," Duff says. "And nobody went in blindfolded." Still, the possibility that she might somehow be responsible for the trouble makes her a trifle uneasy.'

Again, you can see why the original property owners were loath to give up access to once valuable and much sought after land in Paradise, right next door to Lava Hell.

@Boris: Thanks for the links. I may have to visit that cathedral in Catania if I ever find myself in Sicily again. That fresco would be one of the few things that would attract me to a cathedral. I stood on Monti Rossi, ignorant of the role it played.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 29 Jul 2010 #permalink

Ref [15], not at anyone in particular.

In 1559 Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed in what was to become Pensacola Florida. This pre-dates St. Augustine by six years, and would make it the oldest city in the US if it had not been for the idiocy of Tristán de Luna. Rather than offload his ships and getting to work with getting the colony going, he felt time was better served traipsing off into the woods after the native Panzacola tribe and poking around for whatever else he could find.

On September 19, 1559, his fleet, still sitting in the harbor with all his stores, was wiped out by a Hurricane.

Since then Pensacola, like most gulf of Mexico cities and ports, catches one every few years or so.

But that doesn't stop the developers from building on "barrier islands." Barrier islands are essentially, semi-permanent over sized sand bars. They migrate up and down the coastline over the centuries. But idiots still build on them, and insurance companies pay to have the structures re-built, and charge all the residents higher rates, even those who have the common sense to not build on a sand bar.

I would go on, but it's already OT, and I can't really add more without risking profanity.

Que bela ideia. Tenho sempre a tentação de comprar grandes fatias de melancia quando lá em casa só eu a aprecio. Aqui está uma bela sugestão: em formas individuais dá uma excelente sobremesa para mim...
Beijinhos e uma boa semana

As a member of your fashion marketplace, I salute you. I've often been in appreciate with fashion all my life so I've produced a discussion board for business experts to come together and discuss all things fashion. I enjoy this site and will be coming back again.

Aloha! I'm a security guard at the Kalapana flow (under county contract). As an update, we've had 2 major breakouts in the same area since Gary's house was destroyed, September 26 as I recall and October 15th (crossing onto Jean's noni farm on the 16th, before redirecting to the road.) Asphalt fires are noxious to deal with.

So let's talk lava prevention. Lava's all about least resistance. As the author stated, it's possible to channel lava, but in many cases the sheer density of solidifying pahoehoe would typically fill said ditch. Down here we'd have to dynamite a strategic path since we're a layer-cake of basalt. Walls often fail because the edge of the flow, which may snake along at 1/2 ft to 3 ft deep, quickly stacks up into 8 to 10 to even 20ft hills, pouring over defenses. Both, techniques, along with spraying it with hoses, buys some time, if you're trying to wait out a small breakout. The crack in the tube last weekend poured a 300 yard stretch over a course of 3 days before stopping of its own accord. If, however, you're dealing with a large flow, like the one at Gary's house, which was finding its way to the ocean, you're pretty much screwed.

So Douglas Adams Fans, lets get sci fi. You could bomb open a massive trench, but you can't tell how much mass to expect, or how long it will continue. We had a lava tube last year the size of a four car highway gushing at 48 mph. A formidable force, to predict. So what about a really really big wall? You need to embed it in the same trench you built earlier, and even then it probably wouldn't work. Under pressure, lava will just pick up and move your wall. Last weekend I saw the lava lift and shove a rock outcrop about ten feet onto the road (over a course of five hours) because it was in the way.

You could build on high ground, atop a hill, in the middle of a flat field. Evidence of this can be found in the Kapoho a'a fields, where you still have areas of pristine jungle stacked atop cinder cones spared from the 1960 eruption. Of course, this trick only works so many times, stacking higher and higher until your hill is no longer a hill. Not to mention the fact you wouldn't be able to access your house until it was over.

As for a heat resistant house? If you had a composite that could survive that sort of temperature, you'd need a chimney like entrance sticking straight up in the air since you have no clue how deep you'll be buried. You'd also have to anchor this super-strong house in such a way that the lava couldn't roll it.

Best way to live on a lava flow? Trailer.