Meet ‘lava chasers,’ who head toward volcanoes when others are fleeing
For most people, the sight of lava making its way toward them means stay well away. But for a select few, the reaction is the complete opposite.
These are so-called “lava chasers,” people who actually seek out active volcanoes, stand precipitously on the edge and some who even head inside craters.
With the increased activity of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii these past few weeks, you can find Demian Barrios somewhere near one of the fissures spouting lava. Normally lava flows in predictable routes in Hawaii, but with this new eruption, Barrios said he’s been forced to chase it. But’s all worth it.
“It’s very intense out there. Obviously the lava is very hot,” Barrios told CBC News. “There is a very small danger getting within that proximity to the lava itself, and it’s a mix of emotions. It’s very exciting to see the volcano creating new land.”
Kilauea is an effusive volcano. Instead of shooting lava violently into the sky, it erupts in fissures, openings in cracks in the ground where the magma bubbles up to the surface — and is then called lava — and moves slowly along the ground. It’s this ongoing activity that created the islands themselves.
[Volcanoes] give us fertile soil; they give us some of the best real estate on Earth. But all of the gifts that are given can be revocable with almost no notice.– George Kourounis, nature adventurer
Hawaii is known for its volcanoes and lakes of lava, but every so often — as now, the first time since 1955 — new areas of lava are being formed.
That’s not to say that Kilauea doesn’t have explosions: Since the new activity began three weeks ago, authorities have warned of increasing danger from something called a phreatomagmatic explosion. In these violent events, magma interacts with water below the surface, building pressure and then sending ash and rock skyward.
Kilauea has been sending up small phreatomagmatic explosions for about a week now, with larger explosions over the past few days.
“We did have a few explosions within the past couple of days that had some huge lava bombs, basically huge molten rock being ejected out of the fissure vents and they fly several hundred feet in the air,” Barrios said. “When those start falling on the ground, you don’t want to be anywhere around those.”
But Barrios doesn’t stay away. He says he has respect for Pele, the fire goddess of Hawaii. He ensures that he takes precautions. Among his other tools, he wears a respirator to protect against the noxious sulphur dioxide gases as well as a helmet.
Chasing volcanoes worldwide
George Kourounis, from Toronto, is another such adventure chaser: He was married at the side of an active volcano in Vanuatu and spent his honeymoon at Kilauea during an eruption.
Kourounis, originally a sound engineer, experienced his first volcano encounter with Erta Ale in Ethiopia in 2005. He was hooked.
“They’re so much like visiting another planet,” Kourounis said. “Very few things live on these volcanoes, and they have this lunar kind of landscape. And to see liquid rock and to feel the heat is the kind of thing that I’m just curious about. I’ve always been fascinated by extremes of nature.”
He photographs and records his close encounters, as seen below.
Since then, he’s lost count of the volcanoes he’s visited, but he says it’s likely in the realm of 25: in Hawaii, Iceland, Ethiopia, Vanuatu, Italy, New Zealand, Indonesia and Guatemala, to name but a few.
Now he chases full-time, and not just volcanoes: Also tornadoes, hurricanes, fires and other extreme events.
And though he loves it all, volcanoes have held a particular fascination.
“Civilization and humans in general, we have this relationship with volcanoes,” Kourounis said. “They give us fertile soil; they give us some of the best real estate on Earth. But all of the gifts that are given can be revocable with almost no notice. Pele’s gifts are fickle.”
While Kourounis isn’t in Hawaii now — he doesn’t want to waste a trip if he can’t get close enough since authorities are warning people away — in June he’s headed to Vanuatu again as a guide to some other thrill-seekers.
Both chasers understand the risks and take their safety seriously. Still, volcanoes aren’t exactly predictable.
In one of the most famous instances, Maurice and Katia Krafft, two seasoned French volcanologists, were killed in a pyroclastic flow — a fast-moving flow of gas and volcanic debris — on Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991. Forty-one other people were also killed, including volcanologist Harry Glicken and several journalists covering the eruption.
“You can do everything right and still get into trouble,” said Kourounis, who once found himself in a crater with a gas-powered lift whose starter came off in his hand Fortunately for him, it broke after it started. Of course, he was equipped with backups.
Chasing lava, descending into craters, standing on the edge of lava lakes — it all sounds like a unnecessarily foolish risk. But for Barrios and Kourounis, it’s the love of nature that fuels the chase.
“I know it’s not for everybody,” Barrios said. “A lot of people are running the opposite way, and we’re running into ground zero.”