The lava fields on the island of Hawaiʻi are also classrooms for geology and volcanology students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, the only school in the United States with an active volcano in its backyard.
Every semester, if the conditions are right, undergraduate volcanology classes hike through a lava field, where the towns of Kalapana and Kaimū once stood, to reach an active lava flow. The hikes can be over two and half miles long under a blazing sun, over difficult terrain.
“A lot of people don’t get an idea of how intense hiking on the lava and how vast and expansive it really is and it is definitely an experience that I suggest everybody have,” said Meghann Decker, a UH Hilo student.
The students are taught the proper ways to travel and operate around lava. They have to bring a lot of water to prevent dehydration and dress properly.
“They have to have boots that won’t melt, they have clothing that won’t melt,” said UH Hilo geology and volcanology professor Ken Hon with a laugh.
They could accidentally walk into a lava flow if they are not paying attention as a slow moving flow can easily blend into the landscape. Whatever the speed, it is extremely hot and can be very dangerous.
“I try to teach them how to collect good data and do it in a safe way so nobody gets hurt,” said Hon.
The work begins as soon as the class arrives.
“We are out here, just getting a few samples, mapping the flow,” said UH Hilo student Bryan Patterson.
“We can actually go out into the field and learn the field methods and the fact that we get to come out here in the lava is pretty awesome,” said Decker.
“We can read about things in a book,” said Hon. “We can do math equations and stuff like that but then it really sets it off for people when they can actually come out and really see all of that happen before their eyes.”
The students learn the different properties of lava and how to determine if it is fast or slow moving and a threat. They also take turns wearing a special protective suit for experiments like measuring the lava’s temperature. It’s a once in a lifetime experience for most, a much more common occurrence for UH Hilo students.
“It’s great. It’s hard to describe,” said Patterson.
“You get to see earth being created,” agreed Decker. “You can’t do that in many other places.”