Kilauea volcano’s eruption in Hawaii a reminder: plan a hike on an active volcano with care – by following these six tips
On a volcanic adventure there is always the risk of being trapped, injured or killed, so you should carry out careful planning and consideration beforehand. These are the most important details to keep in mind
I peered over the craggy rim of Erta Ale, Ethiopia’s most active volcano, at the lava lake below. Beneath a gassy haze, boiling, ruby-red, molten rock thickened and rose up, swelling like a tidal wave topped off by a fireworks of crashing surf.
I had stumbled upon the opportunity to hike to the 613-metre summit of Erta Ale while planning a road trip across the ancient kingdoms and lakes of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. The East African Rift runs through Ethiopia’s crusty, northeastern Afar region.
There, the shifting of the tectonic plates beneath the parched desert landscape produces a chaos of fire and gases that can be seen at the top of Erta Ale, which contains one of the world’s six lava lakes. The two-day trek turned out to be the most arduous and spectacular event in my month-long trip, and whetted my appetite for more.
Figures suggest that trips to both visit and hike volcanoes are increasing. Volcano Adventures, a tour company founded by German vulcanologist Tom Pfeiffer, says its day trip excursions to Italy’s Stromboli and Etna volcanoes have increased by 15.3 per cent since 2014.
The number of people climbing Mount Nyiragongo, an active stratovolcano in the Virunga National Park in Congo, increased 92 per cent between 2015 and 2017.
A US National Park Service report estimates a 58 per cent increase in visitors at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park since 2008, when Kilauea, an active shield volcano, began erupting. And with its current activity – a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Hawaii’s main island last week, shaking Kilaeua, after its main crater collapsed, and 10 new fissures formed, spewing lava fountains as high as 70 metres and causing thousands of residents to flee their homes – there’s more opportunity to come.
“Volcano tourism is set to rise with the establishment of more volcanic and geothermal Geoparks and World Heritage Sites,” said guidebook author Patricia Erfurt-Cooper, referring to the areas designated by Unesco to protect the planet’s geological heritage.
The risk of being trapped, injured or killed while hiking a live volcano, however, means such a trip requires careful consideration and planning. Keep the following advice in mind when planning a volcanic adventure.
Perhaps the most important tip is to consider obtaining travel insurance and extra coverage. As you’ll see below, both natural and political conditions can change rapidly.
1. Do your research
“Find out as much as possible about the volcano you plan to visit before leaving home,” advises Rosaly Lopes, a senior scientist at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and author of The Volcano Adventure Guide. For example, which of the six eruption types does it exhibit? Hawaiian and Strombolian eruptions emit gentle lava flow and moderate eruptions, respectively. They represent the least dangerous types to watch. Plinian eruptions (similar in scale to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD) refer to the extremely destructive ones.
“Be aware,” says Lopes. “No two volcanoes are alike, even if they are classified as the same type.” For volcano research information online, check out the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program and the US Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program.
Lopes suggests preparing a checklist that includes information about the volcano’s current and past activity.
Find out whether your volcano destination is regularly monitored by scientists from a nearby university; local experts and guides can provide invaluable details you might not find in general guidebooks. Take a look at maps that show roads or trails to the summit.
See if escape routes have been provided and find out what kind of local emergency, and search and rescue services are available.
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2. Pack protective attire
Determine equipment and clothing based on what type of material your volcano is likely to expel, and your potential proximity to explosions, Lopes says. If you are hiking on rough, brittle volcanic terrain, such as on Erta Ale, wear long trousers, hiking boots and a pair of leather gloves.
A hard hat or helmet and protective goggles are advisable when visiting an active volcano that spits out Strombolian explosions, such as Yasur, on Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
3. Prepare for plumes
Ingrid Smet, geologist and tour coordinator at Volcano Adventures, advises carrying a gas mask to expeditions with fumaroles – openings that release toxic gases and steam – such as Nyiragongo.
“Even non-erupting volcanoes may produce a plume of gas or lots of fumaroles,” Lopes says.
Lava that is entering the sea, as is common in Hawaii, can produce steam clouds that contain hydrochloric acid. Breathing these fumes may cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation. The wind may change direction quickly. If you find yourself in perilous volcanic atmosphere without a gas mask, Lopes suggests tying a wet cloth over your nose and mouth.
4. Obey the signs
Always stay within barriers and obey restricted area signs. Last September, three people visiting the Solfatara volcano crater in Pozzuoli, a popular tourist attraction near Naples, Italy, died when an 11-year-old boy wandered past a barrier and fell into a pit.
If you aren’t sure you have firm lava to stand on, tread very carefully and be aware of the weight you bear on each leg.
5. Avoid the ‘bombs’
Explosive bursts within the volcano’s main vent can shoot magma “bombs” into the air, accompanied by loud, thunderous bangs and a fire dance of falling cinders. It is a joy to watch, but keep in mind that, given the volatility of volcanic activity, there is no established standard for the safe distance from an eruption. Watch the direction and range of flying bombs.
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If dodging becomes impracticable, Lopes recommends finding a mound or large boulder for shelter and covering your head with a backpack when a helmet or hard hat is unavailable. Running is advisable only when bombs appear to be pellet-sized and you can outrun their range, she says.
6. Take care at lava flows
While most visitors to Kilauea in Hawaii head to the Jaggar Museum’s overlook to view the eruption, others choose to walk over the uneven terrain formed by years of recent flows to watch the red-hot lava running into the sea.
“Always check with park rangers before hiking out to lava flows,” says Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
“Check the park website and watch for daily updates on the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website for the latest conditions.” A good safety resource is the park’s Lava Safe video at YouTube.com.
Consider other dangers: Among Lopes’ most frightening experiences exploring an active volcano were a pack of unfriendly dogs and a gun-toting farmer. “There are times when the place itself is more dangerous than the volcano,” she said.
Erfurt-Cooper concurs. “Safe access can be a problem in remote regions such as Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, the Aleutians or Mount Erebus,” she says. “On occasion, volcanoes may become unsafe due to political unrest.”
The trek up Nyiragongo remains popular, despite the ongoing violence in Congo. And tours to Erta Ale, the volcano I visited, have grown since a 2012 incident in which five European tourists were killed by rebels. (The death of a German tourist in 2017 was deemed a tragic accident.) To help evaluate whether your destination is safe, check out the US State Department’s travel advisory system.
With 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide, there are plenty of choices – here are some recommended sites:
Silfra fissure, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland: “You won’t necessarily see lava in Iceland,” Lopes says. “But you will enjoy wonderful volcanic landscapes, geysers and geothermal areas.”
Silfra is a crack between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates filled with some of the clearest water on Earth. “You can actually see the surface expression of these two plates spreading apart,” she says.
Dallol, Ethiopia: This site, a half-day drive from Erta Ale, is “the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life”, Lopes says. It’s Earth’s lowest land volcano, at 48 metres (158 feet) below the sea, and its sulphurous geysers glow in mineral colours.
Sierra Negra, Isabela Island, Galapagos Islands: The Galapagos archipelago delivers remote volcanic habitats, an array of invigorating activities and the blue-footed booby. Erfurt-Cooper suggests visiting seahorse-shaped Isabela Island, for a challenging 11km (seven-mile) hike on Sierra Negra Volcano, where you can peer into the depths of one of the world’s greatest volcanic calderas.
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