Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Life in Lava Zone 1, or "Juniper vs. the Volcano"

I'm writing this post on top of a volcano.

Luckily, Mt. Kilauaea doesn't look like this at the moment. But the village of Volcano, Hawaii, has to be one of the few inhabited spots in the world located close to the summit of an active volcano. The people in Volcano point out that since the lava flows downhill, they're safer than those of us at sea level, who are potentially in the lava's path. Since the current Kilauea eruption has been going for years, scenes like this one from 1984 aren't unusual.

Our place here on the Big Island is near the foot of Kilauea, but the last time lava flowed in our direction was in 1960. This isn't entirely reassuring; for all we know, we're due for a flow. Living near a currently erupting volcano is a fascinating experience. People track the flow of the lava the way you would an oncoming storm. "It's flowing into the ocean again." "I heard it's heading toward Royal Gardens." People wake up at 4:30 to trek hours across the cooled lava to where the molten stuff is cruising down the mountain. When it flows into the ocean, "lava boat" operators do a brisk business. Blogs like the Hawaiian Lava Daily provide eyewitness reports of the latest quirks in the flow. And of course the USGS and National Park Service sites gets lots of hits.

Living close to a volcano, you learn to accept that things change, and there's nothing you can do about it. The legendary Kalapana Black Sand Beach was buried in lava in 1990.

More recently, Fox's Landing, a remote beach accessible only by a jungle path, disappeared under the lava. I was crushed when I heard about that. People have bought lots near Kalapana, only to have them turned into fields of molten lava that can't be worked until it cools. Some people even live on the lava fields, off the grid, buffeted by winds, drawn by the awesome power of the volcano.
Photography by Olivier Koening

We're not quite that daring, but we too live with the knowledge that a new vent could open up and we could be in the lava's newest path. Home insurance is freakishly expensive in what's called Lava Zone 1. The 1960 vent is only a mile away from us. We pass it every time we drive into town. It's a reminder of how unpredictable life is, and why we should appreciate the incredible beauty that exists at this moment, even if it should disappear tomorrow. 

Living with lava has benefits as well, of course. Our area has no big resorts and relatively little development. Who's going to invest millions of dollars into a commercial project that could be under five feet of lava next year? Every time we plant a fruit tree, I wonder if I'll be harvesting limes in ten years or watching a river of lava claim it. We still keep planting, though. We'll take our chances in paradise, and after all, nothing's guaranteed no matter where you live. Some places have mudslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, or ten-foot blizzards. Here in Lava Zone 1, we have lava. Call us crazy, but we love it.

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