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Levin: Thinking About Volcanoes

09/14/10 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(HOST)  Commentator Ted Levin spent part of his summer vacation thinking about volcanoes - both far away and right next door.

(LEVIN) I moved to Vermont in 1977. As an introduction to the physiographic neighborhood, Dr. Robert Chaffee, the founding director of the Montshire Museum, told me that Mount Ascutney was the root of a prehistoric volcano, a 120-million-year-old infusion of magma that slowly cooled beneath the surface and became exposed only after the surrounding landscape weathered away. Today, Ascutney rises 3,100 feed above sea level, tough and lonely, an erosion-resistant block of granite, which geologists call a monadnock (after the popular mountain outside Dublin, New Hampshire). I see its arthritic crown from my bedroom window forty miles away.
    
As every school child learns magma at the surface is called lava. An active volcano either releases its lava by eruption (think Mount St. Helens) or by leakage (think Hawaii).
   
Recently, I visited Hawaii, a chain of islands, archipelagos, coral atolls, and submerged banks, all volcanic, that stretches in a straight-line northwest to southeast 1,500 miles across the central Pacific. The Big Island, which is also called Hawaii, is the size of Connecticut, largest, youngest, wildest of the lot. One side is desert dry and looks like the inside of my barbecue. The other is jungle lush. The Big Island is a fusion of five volcanoes, none older than 600,000 years.  A sixth remains twenty-eight miles offshore, 3,000 feet below the surface, and may yet graph to the rest. Of the five, two are active; one, Kilauea, the most restless volcano on Earth, added six hundred acres to the Island over the past year.
   
I hiked two miles along uneven, ocean cliffs to watch Kilauea meet the sea. From a distance, the presence of lava appeared as a ribbon of steam above the black plains (much like a line of fog above the Connecticut River on cool a October morning). Where the molten river met the ocean a mushroom cloud dominated the sky. Gingerly, I walked toward the cloud.
   
Wherever a run of lava has branched and then come together again, eventually cooling, islands of living trees stand amid scorched, sulfurous ground. The closer I got to the flow the warmer the soles of my sandals became. As night fell, cracks in the ground glowed red, marking the progress of sub-surface flow. Occasional blue or green or orange flames rose from the cracks, and the steamy mushroom cloud took on a crimson hue punctuated by hissing showers of molten rock that shot skyward like a broadside of fireworks whenever lava hit the sea.
   
The entire scene was otherworldly, or maybe this world at another time... say the Jurassic, when allosaurs rules the planet and Mount Ascutney was cooling beneath the surface.
   
Not everyone on Hawaii sees lava the same way. To native Polynesians lava is the incarnation of the goddess Pele. To residents living near the flow, it's a hazard that may engulf property or cut off road access. But to a wayfaring naturalist lava made for a most mesmerizing night.
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