Grace Amsden, Senior Reporter
The ground they’re walking on is the product of a volcanic eruption: lava. This kind is pahoehoe – a dried basaltic lava flow formed into rope-like patterns.
The group hikes through Hawaii’s humidity. In their backpacks, they carry items such as first-aid kits, water, raingear and their 99-page field guide. As required, they wear closed-toe shoes in the field: hiking boots or tennis shoes.
From Sept. 5-15, 14 participants, one trip assistant and two instructors learned about Hawaii’s geologic and ecological aspects through the 2016 Hawaii Island Field Excursion to the Big Island, which cost $1,795.
“It was a wonderful melding of academic learning with exciting recreational aspects of the trip,” Tom Bush, professor and department coordinator for earth and space sciences, said.
The trip was open to anyone, whether it be for the 10 natural science credits or experience. One 5-credit course was GEOL&115, taught by Bush, and the other NSCL150, taught by Dale Blum, biology instructor and department coordinator. Pre-trip material was conducted online.
After meeting at the Hilo International Airport Sept. 5, the group went to the Kilauea Military Camp for their room arrangements. It’s located within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, which includes active volcanoes Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
“We were, like, a mile away from the summit of Kīlauea,” Brandon Voelker, student lab assistant, said. “Almost every night, we’d drive up there and see it.”
One viewing experience was a lake of lava within the Kīlauea Caldera.
For past trips, the glow from lava and fumes could be seen – not this particular view, Bush said.
“That was always pretty spectacular, too, but this was the the first time we’ve actually been able to see lava in the lake itself,” Bush said.
Hiking was a significant portion of the trip, including walking on ground with fairly recent lava flows without vegetation. That’s why there are cairns, piles of rocks that lead the path.
“The Hawaii hikes made me able to see different features in the hikes around here,” student Teresa Di Leonardo said. “I like to go on the Snohomish mountains; I guess they’re kind of similar to Mauna Kea, because you can find alpine lakes far up there that are just pretty much secluded lakes that are there year round, because the permafrost prevents them from draining down.”
One experience allowed the group to see lava entering the Pacific Ocean from volcano Puʻu ʻŌʻō at the Kalapana viewpoint, which produces lots of steam from the impact.
“The main thing that was unique about this time was the lava viewing opportunities,” Bush said. “We had a really good lava viewing opportunity at the ocean entry.”
Museum visits were another aspect of the trip. At the Pacific Tsunami Museum, the group learned about tsunamis and their effects on the land and people. At the Lyman Museum, they learned about vegetation zones and the area’s cultural history.
A theme for the trip was that geologic processes impact ecology, Bush said; for example, if lava demolishes a forest but doesn’t impact a particular area, this isolates organisms.
“They’re called kipukas, where there’s species that are not found, not only anywhere else in the world, but not even anywhere else in Hawaii,” Bush said.
Swimming and other water activities, along with learning about its origins, were experienced at beaches such as Mahana Bay, which has green sand.
Lava tubes were also explored such as at the Kaumana Caves Country Park, where visible tree roots hang from the cave’s roof, Voelker said.
“You can just imagine how lava would be flowing through there – you can see the shape of the lava in there,” Voelker said. “What’s really cool is there’s stalactites that are made from the lava dripping down.”
Throughout the trip, group presentations were held for everyone taking the courses for credit. Some topics included lava tube formation and lava tube ecosystems.
The landscape explored through the trip is unique compared to other areas of the world, including volcanoes such as Mount Rainier, Bush said.
“A lot of places here are devoid of vegetation and covered by nothing but black, lumpy lava flows, steam coming out of the ground and maybe ferns growing out of cracks out of relatively recent lava flows that have erupted,” Bush said.
Leonardo said that she’s shown two comparison photos of Hawaii to others. One features a white sand beach with palm trees, which she said is an image others tend to think of for Hawaii.
“I have this (other) picture, and it’s of absolute desolation: black-like rock lava everywhere, haphazardly stacked,” Leonardo said. “That was my vacation to Hawaii. That was our experience.”
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