Along with entire towns, ongoing eruptions have decimated key of - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Along with entire towns, ongoing eruptions have decimated key offshore habitats

Lava is affecting various marine ecosystems. (Image: Peter Tang) Lava is affecting various marine ecosystems. (Image: Peter Tang)
BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Kilauea's ongoing eruptions in lower Puna haven't just dramatically changed the landscape. They've also wiped out key ecosystems offshore.

On top of entire coral reefs and tide pools that have been covered by lava, scientists are also seeing the warm waters generated by the flow affecting reefs in front of the ocean entry point.

For Misaki Takabayashi, professor of Marine Science at UH Hilo, the loss of Waiopae tide pools in Kapoho in early June wasn't just a loss for the scientific community that studied it. It was a personal loss as well.

Takabayashi and her team surveyed the area for more than a decade, studying the health of the coral and the environment around it.

“It was a unique environment for coral,” she said. “You do feel a deep sense of loss. But it’s part of the cycle of the Big Island. Shorelines are created. There will be new reefs soon enough, but it will take decades.”

Steve Colbert, UH Hilo associate professor of marine science, believes the loss will have a significant impact on the area’s ecosystem. That's partly because the Waiopae tide pools in Kapoho served as a home for many juvenile fish.

“It’s an important nursery,” he said. “Now it’s completely wiped out.”

The shoreline in the area also housed a significant amount of reefs, Colbert said.

Warming waters

Colbert has been monitoring not only the now-covered reefs, but the marine ecosystems around the lava ocean entry area.

Scientists were concerned about the warming water in the area, sometimes measuring 120 degrees. They were worried that the hot water would travel to other coastal areas and stress coral and other filter-feeding animals.

“All organisms have some sort of thermal tolerance,” he said. “Once you exceed that for an extended period of time, they die.”

But Colbert, partnering with Liquid Robotics and their deployed Wave Gliders, found that the warm water is only really affecting the area in front of the ocean entry point.

“Coral reefs above 25 feet are likely to be impacted,” Colbert said.

Reefs on other shorelines don’t seem to feel the impact of the warm waters, according to Colbert.

He said that corals and filter-feeders are also struggling with muddy waters as volcanic particles break up into smaller pieces and cloud up the water.

'Renewal process'

Kilauea has affected marine life since its beginnings, even before the bright red rivers of lava made its way to the sea in May.  

Frank Sansone, a geochemist with the Oceanography Department at UH Manoa, scuba dived to observe volcanic effects in the 1980s — when the Puu Oo vent was erupting. The vent only became silent recently, prior to the current eruptions.

With the Puu Oo eruptions, Sansone observed that lava feeding into the ocean affected the acidity and temperature. He said the activity could impact waters a mile away.

These factors, combined with turbid waters, kept mobile marine life from the lava entry area. He suspects a similar thing is occurring now, but with much larger flows from fissure no. 8 pouring into the ocean.

“That was on a much smaller scale,” he said.

Even explosions underwater are most likely keeping fish away, according to Sansone.

Still, there are stationary marine life or those trapped by the lava's fast-changing course that are unable to avoid the lava’s path.

"We do see some dead fish floating at the surface," Colbert said. "Some could be trapped when conditions change rapidly." 

Recently, concerns were raised after a video showed a turtle trapped in Champagne Pond as lava flowed into the water. Champagne Pond was filled in early June, and some were worried that turtles in the Pohoiki area would meet the same fate.

But in a news release, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said an overflight found no trapped turtles in the area.

Dan Dennison, DLNR spokesman, said there are no plans underway to conduct other activities to see whether marine animals are in distress elsewhere off Kapoho. "It's premature to talk about mitigation before the eruption ceases and personnel can safely access the area," he said.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to watch the lava flows into the sea — and their affects on marine life.

Sansone said while the eruptions are disruptive and catastrophic to some habitats, they're also natural.

“It’s a renewal process,” Sansone said.

For marine life to once again inhabit the area’s waters, the acidity and debris will need to be washed out. Incredibly, once the lava flows cease, that should only take a couple of days, according to Sansone.

Takabayashi said that in order for the life to return once more, it will have to stem from neighboring environments. But for now, it’s hard to predict what that new environment might look like.

“Pele is not done yet, so we’ll see,” Takabayashi said.

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