Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes History

The major inhabited Hawaiian Islands were formed during the past 5 million years by the intermittent outpouring of lava from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. According to the theory of plate tectonics, the island of Hawai'i sits on, and is almost in the middle of, the Pacific Plate, a giant jigsaw piece of the Earth's crust that is moving slowly (about four inches per year) in a northwesterly direction. As Janet Babb explains in Hawai'i Volcanoes—The Story Behind the Scenery, "Heat from a relatively stationary hot spot deep within the Earth's mantle creates magma (molten rock) that rises through the overlying Pacific plate and erupts on the ocean floor. After thousands of eruptions, an island builds a rocky mass above sea level." Like a slow-paced assembly line, the plate, moving over the hot spot, has created a succession of islands in the Hawaiian Ridge that extends all the way to Midway and Kure, more than 1,500 miles (2,414 km) from where it began 30 to 35 million years ago.

The Hawaiian Islands are but mere tops of gigantic mountains rising from the floor of the ocean. The newest of these islands, Hawai'i, is relatively young, geologically speaking. The oldest rocks above sea level are less than one million years old. The Island of Hawai'i was formed by five volcanoes, but only three are considered active: Hualālai, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. The latter are two of the world's most active volcanoes.

A new sister volcano is Lō'ihi Seamount, an underwater active volcano about 20 miles (32 km) off the southeast coast of Hawai'i. L¯ō'ihi may be the next island in the Hawaiian chain. Currently, it is about 3,000 feet below sea level. If it continues to grow at the rate that the island of Hawai'i developed, 100,000 years will pass before L¯ō'ihi breaks the water surface.

Arrival of Polynesians

The first discoverers of Hawai'i are believed to have come from the Marquesas Islands, at about A.D. 500. A second migration, from Tahiti, began sometime between A.D. 1200 and A.D. 1400. These invaders became the conquerors and rulers of Hawai'i and brought with them the political system of kapu, which is made up of a strict form of rules. 

Evidence of early Hawaiian settlement is found throughout the islands. The ancient Hawaiians lived off the sea and lowland agricultural areas. For this reason, we find most of their ruins near shorelines. Villages, isolated house sites, agricultural mounds, petroglyph fields, refuge caves, heiau (temples) and many other signs of their early presence can be found on the island.

In the park, the legacy of the ancient Hawaiians lives on in the petroglyph fields and caves, house sites and canoe landings. 

Remember, it is unlawful to harm or disturb any archeological remains. All rock walls and platforms are unstable. Climbing on or removing rocks from these features will destroy them and is therefore prohibited.

The Second Discovery

The Hawaiian Islands remained isolated from the rest of the world until 1778, when Captain James Cook first sighted the islands of O'ahu, Kaua'i and Ni'ihau. In February 1779, the English navigator returned to discover other islands in the main group, including Hawai'i. He was killed by Hawaiian warriors while anchored at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai'i Island's west coast. A monument marks the spot.

No other Europeans visited Hawai'i until 1786. After that, traders and explorers came in increasing numbers. Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies of the Vancouver Expedition became, in 1794, the first non-Hawaiian to climb Mauna Loa. 

Missionaries and Scientists

Following the death of King Kamehameha the Great in 1819 and the overthrow of the kapu system of rule, the first missionaries arrived from New England. In 1823, the Reverend William Ellis toured the island of Hawai'i by land and by sea. He also became the first non-Hawaiian to view Kīlauea Volcano in action. Seventeen years later, a party under Commander Charles Wilkes spent several weeks on the summit of Mauna Loa making scientific observations. The party also camped briefly on Waldron Ledge overlooking Kīlauea Caldera.

Although Kīlauea was extremely difficult to reach, a growing number of people expended the necessary energy to do so. In 1824, Lord George Anson Byron came to Kīlauea while visiting the islands to return the bodies of the Hawaiian king and queen who had died of measles while visiting England.

Volcano House

By the 1840s, a growing need for accommodations at Kīlauea became evident. At an elevation of 4,000 feet, and with strong winds and frequent rain, little thatched huts were hardly adequate to meet this need. The first Volcano House was built on the rim of the caldera. It was made of thatch, too, and it was not until 31 years later that a permanent structure was erected to accommodate visitors to Kīlauea. Since then, the historic hotel and its replacements have been improved many times by various owners.

National Park Status

Because the eruptions of Hawaiian volcanoes are gentler than those of most other volcanoes around the world, lava flows are frequently accessible, allowing people to come and pay their respects to Pele. The early Hawaiians revered her and made offerings to placate her wrath. Missionaries William Ellis and Asa Thurston visited Kīlauea's boiling lake of lava in 1823, the first Westerners to do so. Pele's lake was described in magazines of the day and adventure-seeking travelers came to see it firsthand. Mark Twain, on seeing Kīlauea in 1866, enthusiastically wrote, "Here was room for the imagination to work!"

Lorrin Thurston, publisher of the Honolulu Pacific Commercial Advertiser at the turn of the century, loved to explore the volcano lands. Among his discoveries was a giant lava tube, formed when a river of hot lava cooled and crusted over while the still-molten interior continued to flow downhill. Eventually, the lava drained out, leaving a cave-like shell. The Thurston Lava Tube (Nāhuku) is a major attraction on the Crater Rim Drive.

In 1906, Thurston began a campaign to establish this amazing area as a public park. His efforts were not effective until he was joined in 1912 by Dr. Thomas A. Jaggar, who came to the islands to es-tablish and serve as director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Together, the two conservationists collared politicians, wrote editorials and promoted the idea of making the volcanoes into a national park in what was then the Territory of Hawai'i.

On August 1, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the country's 12th national park into existence. It took 10 years, but Thurston and Jaggar's perseverance paid off. 

At first, the park consisted of only Kīlauea and Mauna Loa on Hawai'i and Haleakalā on Maui. Eventually, park boundaries were extended to include the Ka'ū  and Kalapana regions on Kīlauea, and Kahuku and the Ola`a rain forest on Mauna Loa.

In 1961, Haleakalā was made a separate national park. Today, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park protects 333,000 acres of the island's volcanic wonders and is a refuge for surviving native plants and animals.

In 1980, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park an International Biosphere Reserve because of its outstanding scenic and scientific values. The park was recognized for its important volcanic sites (including two of the world's most active volcanoes); its volcanic island ecosystem, which preserves one of the largest significant ecosystems on the Hawaiian Islands; and its cultural and historic sites. The Biosphere Reserve program goals are to conserve the diversity of a designated site's ecosystems and provide areas for research, education and training. 

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. World Heritage Sites recognize and protect areas around the globe that have outstanding natural, historical and cultural values. It evolved from the idea that certain natural and cultural sites have "universal value" for all people.