To outsiders, arriving in Hawaii has become something of a cliché. Admit it: You’re already thinking about mai tais, strolling barefoot on white–sand beaches and getting lei’d by smiling locals in brightly coloured shirts plastered with botanicals.
But the island of Hawaii also welcomes me with something older and more severe. Though the tropical trappings are there, I can’t take my eyes off the black scabs of lava scarring the landscape. They appear as soon as you land at the open–air airport in Kailua–Kona and fan out in fingers many kilometres long. There are two kinds of terrestrial lava flows, and I’m speeding past both on my way up the west coast: fast–moving a‘a, which hardens into churned, broken chunks, and slower–moving pahoehoe, which looks like the chocolate swirl of just–baked brownies cooling in a pan.
A‘a and pahoehoe: The Hawaiian language gives geologists the technical terms for lava because there is no better place to observe the geological violence that creates new land. The Hawaiian islands are exposed summits of undersea volcanoes rooted to the ocean floor. Some of them remain active, like slowly developing blemishes that erupt where the mantle breaks through the Earth’s crust, spewing lava that cools into rock. At under a million years old, the island of Hawaii is the newest island – for now. Just 35 kilometres offshore, Lō‘ihi rises to 975 metres below the Pacific. Someday – it could be in 10,000 years, or 100,000 – it will break the surface to become the ninth major Hawaiian island.