At the southern end of Hawaii’s Big Island, I’m standing on a cliff and watching the newest part of the world being made. Half a mile away, a torrent of lava bursts through the basalt of the island’s edge and pours into the turquoise Pacific. The spout of liquid rock has been shooting into the water day and night for weeks, half-shrouded by a thick cloud of smoke and sulfur dioxide. When the lava hits the ocean’s surface, rocks swept up in the flow explode like fireworks, shooting sharp fragments through the air.
The waters of Hawaii are no stranger to volcanic eruptions; they are, after all, how the islands were formed and continue to be reshaped. But this is unique. At the end of December, 22 acres of the island dropped into the sea as lava from Kīlauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, surged through the brittle cliffs. The lava flow shifted from dozens of small leaks to one huge lava “fire hose.” Now thousands of gallons flow into one specific part of the ocean every day.
At first glance, the lava hose looks like a static orange-red column extending from the cliff to the sea—steady, stately. But when I peer closer, I can see the lava bubbling and hissing, the air around it writhing in the 2,000-degree heat. It seems like a Biblical torrent of brimstone, designed to wipe out life entirely and begin anew. What, I wondered, could possibly survive this?
The answer, for the most part, is nothing. “In the areas where lava is entering the sea, there is essentially no marine life, as the bottom is being constantly recreated by the new lava rock,” says Steven Dollar, a marine researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The waters around the flow are so blistering that not even microscopic plankton could survive in them. Furthermore, waters around an eruption can become so choked with pumice and ash that local fish, birds, marine mammals, and plants die.