Hawaii Island Lava Bench Ready to Break Off

Jerry Greiner
Jerry Greiner
Talmadge Magno
Talmadge Magno

By: Diane Ako

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII (KHNL)- A major chunk of Hawaii Island is set to fall into the ocean any day now. It's newly formed lava land, and it grows more unstable by the day. Three separate lava flows hit the sea, resulting in plumes of steam. Chief ranger Talmadge Magno details why. "We've got 3 ocean entries at this time, the larger being the Lae'apuki Bench entry, and that's the main one for visitation and our concerns for eventual collapse."

When lava meets ocean, it cools and forms glass like rubble underwater. Magno says, "The material it's built on is loose rubble. That's the material as the magma enters the ocean."

Successive layers of lava form a bench. "The bench that sticks out over this loose gravel or material is free hanging. Gravity. That's the process of breaking loose," explains Magno.

It may be beautiful, but it's unsafe. "Laeapuki Bench is now at 55 acres and it'll eventually collapse," fears Magno.

Some 900 people a day come to marvel at nature, like Jerry Greiner from Pennsylvania. It's the park rangers' challenge to keep them safe. "We love to explore, we love to learn new things. Therefore we're here to kind of experience this part of Hawaii."

But Magno walks up to them to warn them about the dangers before they head out. "You'll see as you get out there we have rope areas and signs warning you of that. We ask you don't go beyond those rope areas."

Magno says there are many precautionary measures the park takes to keep visitors safe. "There's signs, there's rope barriers, and there's staff down here to monitor to be present for people to get the word out." Right now you can walk to within a quarter mile of the nearest ocean entry. But Pele is unpredictable and the boundaries can change at any time.

Magno describes what happens if you're on the bench when it collapses: "It could be catastrophic. You start getting steam explosions. It throws a lot of molten as well as rock material in the air and people may get hit by that as well."

When do rangers think the bench will break off? Magno says, "It's hard to say. We have signs. We start watching for fractures along the cliff line. If they start expanding we have cameras out there that monitor."

The last big bench collapse was in November 2005. 44 acres fell into the sea over 4 and a half hours. No one was injured that time, but people have gotten hurt or killed if they were standing too close when it broke off before.