The Lure of Life on Lava

Los Angeles Times
March 8, 2005
By Alex Tizon

MAUNA LOA – Even now, with a bad back and knees as stiff as bamboo, Walter Rowsell, 67, believes he can still outrun the lava. Let it come, he says. Let it flow as fast as it can. If it gets him, it gets him.

“You’re going to go one way or another,” be it by cancer or car wreck or river of molten rock, he says. Death by lava would be quick. One time he poked a stick in a glow-red stream; the stick burst into flames. “It just about exploded,” he said with a cackle.

Such are the terms one must come to before choosing to live on an active volcano. It’s a view composed of equal parts optimism and fatalism, with a dash of daring, some would say foolhardiness. Ten years ago, Rowsell and his wife Judy, 63, left the mainland for good and built a two-bedroom cabin on the slopes of Mauna Loa.

Plenty of other people have done the same. The Big Island is the fastest-growing of all the Hawaiian Islands, adding more than 35,000 residents in the last 15 years. The term “building boom” is uttered by both residents who laud it and old-timers who wish it had never started.

The appeal is hard to resist: Where else in America can you buy land with ocean views, beach, palm trees and year-round sunshine for as little as $15,000 an acre? Ordinary people of modest means can own a morsel of paradise.

But there is the matter of the volcanoes, which is one reason the land is so cheap. You would have to live on one. The Big Island is really nothing more than the tops of five volcanoes merged into a land mass about the size of Los Angeles County, 4,000 square miles. Living on the island, for most, means living on a slope.

Two of the Big Island’s volcanoes — Mauna Loa and Kilauea — are active. Mauna Loa, whose mass makes up half the island, has been swelling for 2 1/2 years and quaking in a way never recorded before. An eruption “is not an if, it’s a when,” said Jim Kauahikaua, scientist in charge at the U.S. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on Mauna Loa. The smaller but feistier Kilauea volcano has been spewing lava for 22 straight years, and shows signs of a bigger event to come.

Hawaii’s situation is unique in the United States, but there are many examples around the world of dense populations living on or near active volcanoes, among them Mt. Etna in Italy, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines and Mt. Nyiragongo in Congo. Volcanologists have identified 457 volcanoes where a million or more people live within a 62-mile radius, and the risks are illustrated by the fact that more than 260,000 people have been killed by volcanic activity in the last 300 years.

Scientists on the Big Island say they must be cautionary without being alarmist. People have lived on the island for 1,500 years, and volcanologists see no signs of an impending eruption that would destroy the island. But the surge in population at the same time that both Mauna Loa and Kilauea seem to be acting strangely has some scientists nervous.

It was easier when the population was sparse. Evacuations were quick and clean. But with 155,000 residents already settled and up to 3,000 people a year moving here — many living off-grid and off-road — scientists and emergency workers say evacuations will be more complicated next time around. Lava burying entire subdivisions, said U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist Peter Cervelli, has become a “significant worry.”

“It’s not our job to tell people where to live,” said Cervelli, who for years was based in Hawaii. He recently transferred to the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage.

“We make recommendations. That’s not to say privately we don’t go, ‘What are those people thinking?’ They’re building on lava flows less than 100 years old. A slope like that is an active slope.”

The scientists’ tack has been to shower information through as many forums as possible, including Internet postings and community meetings. The emphasis is to talk about historical patterns in the hope of pounding in the idea — the reality — that a corridor covered repeatedly by lava is likely to be covered again.

Hawaiian volcanoes have reputations as benign “oozers” rather than the kind that erupt explosively, an example of the latter being Mt. St. Helens in Washington. For most of the time Hawaii has been a U.S. state, this has been true. The state’s lava flows tend to be slow, almost gentle, which has created the mounded mountains said to resemble battle shields, giving them the name shield volcanoes.

But Kilauea (pronounced kil-oh-way’-ya) historically has had violent eruptions roughly at the same rate as Mt. St. Helens — about every 100 to 200 years. An eruption in 1790 killed between 80 and several hundred people (sources vary), but even the low number is higher than in any other volcanic eruption in the United States, including the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, which killed 57.

Over the last two decades, Kilauea has poured lava over 40 square miles, devoured several villages and more than 200 homes, and closed a major road. Highway 130, in Puna, remains blocked by a giant hillside of cooling rock. On the island’s southern coast, a continual flow of lava often reaches the sea, constantly creating a new shoreline. The lava has enlarged the island by about 570 acres.

One ridge over, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since its first recorded eruption in 1843, covering more than 300 square miles. Its most recent eruption, in the spring of 1984, roared for three weeks and sent a lava flow within four miles of Hilo (population 40,000), the island’s biggest city. Since then, Geological Survey scientists estimate more than $2.3 billion of new construction has gone up on the volcano’s slopes, much of it in what historically has been Mauna Loa’s most hazardous region, the Southwest Rift Zone.

It is the steepest quadrant of the mountain, and one of the most picturesque: a giant hillside carpeted by lush ohia trees with red and white blossoms like Christmas ornaments, with dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean. About 6,000 people live in this region.

It’s the place where new homes have been springing up like tropical weeds, about 1,000 in the last decade. The feel is vaguely rural and unkempt, a lush messiness on a mountainside. Residents refer to the collection of homes as a subdivision, but there’s no uniformity: Small mansions sit along the same rough road as prefab log cabins and jury-rigged shacks and trailers covered in tangles of blue tarp. It’s the place where old hippies and corporate dropouts have nestled into new lives, and where retirees come to live their golden years. This is the place that Walter and Judy Rowsell call home.


They knew exactly what they were getting. The couple spent their working lives in the motel business, Walter in maintenance, Judy at the front desk. They lived in Mountain View, Wyo., a place so cold during the winter “you could freeze to death on your way to work,” Judy said.

In the fall of 1985, while vacationing on the Big Island, they decided they found their paradise. They bought a gently sloping, heavily-wooded acre for $5,800, returned to Wyoming and worked for 10 more years before selling their house and using the equity to build their cabin.

It’s a rambler-style structure, with clapboard siding and white aluminum windows, set back exactly 169 feet from the road. At the moment, the cabin is almost completely gray on the outside. Walter applied primer on the siding and roof, but he hasn’t gotten around to putting on topcoats.

Shrubs and ohia trees block whatever views the couple could have, although a slice of ocean is visible from the road. The Rowsells, whose grown daughter lives on the island, like the seclusion.

They pay slightly more than $300 a year for homeowner’s insurance. There is no volcano coverage, although most houses destroyed by Hawaiian volcanoes burn down from lava, so fire coverage could pay for damage as long as the fire was caused by radiant heat and not direct contact with lava.

“If we lose it, we lose it,” Walter said.

The light gray of the house goes well with the dark gray surface of the property. Like most of the other lots in the Ocean View subdivision, the Rowsells’ property sits on top of an old lava flow. Or, more likely, several lava flows.

Volcanologists said a massive eruption covered the area about 240 years ago. Six significant but smaller flows have swept through since then, the most recent in 1950. What worries scientists and civic leaders is another big eruption, which, because of the slope, could pour a river of lava on Ocean View in as little as three hours.

“They could be inundated,” said Lanny Nakano, acting director of the Hawaii County Civil Defense, the department in charge of public safety.

The county government has essentially adopted a buyer-beware approach, largely because volcanic eruptions have not caused huge numbers of deaths on the island in more than 200 years. Big Island officials generally allow private property owners to build as they please.

Nevertheless, Nakano said it was more important than ever that he communicated constantly with the island’s volcanologists. More than 25 scientists work full time monitoring the island’s volcanoes, using the latest in digital and satellite sensors to detect the slightest sounds and movements. The scientists say, based on previous episodes, they would probably detect a major eruption months in advance. But they’re also quick to add that volcanoes are unpredictable.

What transpires deep beneath the surface is largely a mystery, and right now, a lot seems to be going on in the bowels of Mauna Loa. The island’s largest volcano also happens to be the biggest mountain in the world, measured by mass. From its base on the ocean floor to its summit, Mauna Loa, which means “long mountain,” measures 56,000 feet tall — almost twice the height of Mt. Everest.

“Mt. St. Helens is a pimple compared to Mauna Loa,” said lead scientist Kauahikaua.

Since spring 2002, Mauna Loa has been expanding, indicating that a reservoir of magma is building inside. Earthquakes close to the surface are common, but scientists continue to puzzle over the hundreds of earthquakes rumbling more than 20 miles below the summit, in the Earth’s mantle. These deep earthquakes started the same time the mountain began expanding. As many as 188 have been detected in a single week, most of them small (about magnitude 3) and not felt on the surface.

“This is new, this is unprecedented,” Kauahikaua said. “We don’t know what it means.”


Brenda Domingo has seen what a lava flow can do. A single continuous torrent from Kilauea in 1990 wiped out the village of Kalapana, on the island’s eastern shore. About 500 people lost their homes. Domingo and her extended family lost nine houses, including the one in which she and her six siblings were born.

“It was rolling rock, just taking everything, crushing everything,” Domingo said.

Hundred-foot hollows in the land were filled like mud puddles. Yet the flow was slow enough that everyone had time to save their precious belongings, in Domingo’s case family photos, dishware and traditional Hawaiian floor mats made by her grandmother. A rolling swath of forest burst into flames, and houses burned one after the other. Months would pass before the smoke cleared.

Most of what was Kalapana, a fishing village, is now underneath what looks like a sea of petrified tar, with rivulets and waves hardened in midswirl. The sprouts of giant tree ferns and ohia trees have already begun poking through.

Despite this, Domingo, who lives in a neighboring village, refuses to leave the island. It’s home, and she said she could understand why people would want to live here. “It’s a beautiful place, and the mountain reminds you life is fragile,” she said. “It’s sad, but you need to know.”

The Rowsells know all about the story of Kalapana. Most residents do; it’s part of the continuing legend and enigma of the Big Island. Walter and Judy have also been hearing the news bulletins about Mauna Loa’s strange behaviors. They mostly shrug it off, although it seems to bother Judy some. In one candid moment, she blurted out, “I know we’re in denial. We’re all in denial on this mountain. But if you’re going to be afraid, you have no business living here.”

Judy was alluding to the theory of relative dangers, which is commonly expounded and embraced on the Big Island. The central idea is that no place is completely safe, so why not live here? Southern California has its earthquakes. Florida has hurricanes. The Mississippi Delta has floods.

Hawaii’s volcanologists don’t want to press their concerns because, after all, they deal in terms of geological time. When they say an eruption is inevitable, it could mean next week or next century. Or next millennium. Civilizations can rise and fall between the clock’s ticks. Lives can be lived.

Walter Rowsell concerns himself with a simple practical matter.

“The mountain just needs to hold off for another 10 years. Ten years,” he said. “After that, it can do whatever it wants because I won’t be here, and I won’t care.” With that, Rowsell cackles once more, an affectionately defiant laugh, before glancing at his all-gray house and starting off on his daily walk, cane in hand, on the slopes of the world’s largest volcano.