HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — After feeling the biggest earthquake of his life, Kyle Nolan knew something dramatic was happening.
Kilauea volcano began erupting Sunday night for the first time since 2018.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory recorded a magnitude-4.4 earthquake located beneath Kilauea’s south flank at 10:36 p.m. Sunday, about an hour after the eruption began.
Late Monday the eruption was still confined to Kilauea’s summit caldera in the park.
This experience was a first for Nolan, who has been living in Volcano for a year after moving to the Big Island from Maui.
“I haven’t been able to see any lava before, so this is very exciting,” Nolan said Monday while viewing a plume coming from Halema‘uma‘u crater. “(Sunday) night I felt the most massive earthquake and just knew something was about to go down.”
Hundreds of people visited the park throughout the day on Monday to see the huge plume after two years of inactivity.
Visitors and locals alike flocked to Kilauea Overlook for the best view of the crater.
“We came here (Sunday), and it definitely didn’t look like this,” Carl Smith, who is visiting Hawaii Island from the mainland, said Monday. “We’re very lucky that our trip coincided with this eruption.”
Harvey Scott has been a volunteer with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park since 1971 and was excited to see activity in the crater once again.
“My wife is in Austria right now, and our eruption made their news,” Scott joked while viewing the crater Monday. “My wife wanted me to take some pictures, and it is incredible.”
Volcano resident Leah Mozzer slept through the earthquake, but made sure to come to the park to watch the eruption.
“It’s been active my whole life, so this feels like it’s back to normal,” Mozzer said. “This was also just an interesting way to end this crazy year.”
The eruption started Sunday at approximately 9:30 p.m., with three fissure vents opening on the walls of Halema‘uma‘u crater.
Fountaining lava at these vents was estimated to be up to 82 feet high late Monday. The vents were feeding lava into the base of Halema‘uma‘u, which was being filled with a growing lava lake that was rising several yards per hour.
“This is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, so we knew the quiet would end eventually,” said Andrew Lavelle, visual information specialist with HVNP. “This was all up to Pele.”
For about two hours after the eruption began Sunday, there was a line of cars waiting to get to the Kilauea Overlook to see the lava glow.
“We’ve been without lava for two years, and with the holidays a few days away, it makes sense that people want to see this,” Lavelle said. “We just hope that folks can do so safely.”
While the eruption has brought an influx of visitors to the park, rangers have been doing their best to ensure spectators wear masks and safely distance themselves from other parties.
“It is still a pandemic, and COVID-19 does not take a break,” Lavelle said. “Most people are respectful of our guidelines, and some people just need a gentle reminder to put on their masks.”
The park started to see more visitors in the beginning of the holiday season and have had to work harder to make sure people stay distanced and safe.
Park employees and volunteers also are encouraging visitors to stay on the paved paths and trails since the land around the caldera is not stable.
“The landscape around the crater shifted dramatically in 2018, and things are still settling,” Lavelle said. “We want to urge people to stay on the trails and stay out of restricted areas for their own safety.”
Lavelle is hopeful that the lava will bring more mainland tourists and interisland travelers to Hawaii Island after the eventual end of the pandemic.
“Times have been tough for Hawaii, and molten lava was such a draw to this area,” Lavelle said. “I think this will be helpful for the Big Island, especially when we don’t have to worry about COVID-19.”
With the eruption brining more visitors to HVNP, many business owners in Volcano village are happy the lava is back.
“The volcano is why we’re all here,” said Emily Weiss, director of operations at the Volcano Art Center. “Pele’s been very quiet, so it’s exciting and great to see her again.”
Weiss started increasing hours at the gallery when she began getting more visitors in the beginning of the holiday season.
“The holidays brought on more traffic, so we’ve been updating our hours to accommodate that,” Weiss said. “Now that the lava is back, we may have to change things up again.”
Jiranan Thomas, owner of Thai Thai Bistro in Volcano, was awakened by the earthquake Sunday night and felt Pele’s return.
“The fact that this happened at the end of the year is a blessing,” Thomas said. “We’ve already started to see more visitors, and with the lava coming back, I think this will be good for us.”
Thomas and her employees are still sticking with strict COVID-19 restrictions and only have five tables in their restaurant.
“This is an exciting time for us, but we want to make sure we stay safe as more people visit our town,” Thomas said.
Janet Coney, general manager at Kilauea Lodge, has mixed feelings about the return of action at the crater.
“It was fascinating to see the glow of the lava last night, but it did bring back memories of 2018,” Coney said. “I lost many personal items during the constant earthquakes, but I didn’t even feel the earthquake (Sunday) night.”
Although she is nervous about the future, Coney hopes the lava helps the Big Island in the long run.
“It is exciting, because this could be what helps the Big Island economy,” Coney said. “As long as people stay safe with COVID-19 restrictions, this could be an exciting time for us.”
With the Christmas and New Year holidays coming up, the next two weeks at the Kilauea Lodge will be the busiest Coney has had this year.
“Maybe the eruption will help my numbers in the beginning of 2021, too,” Coney said. “Either way, I’m excited to see what’s going to happen.”
Email Kelsey Walling at email@example.com