Patrick O'Brian Discussion Forum

'The entire habitat is gone': Hawaii's natural wonders claimed by lava


In Puna, the area of Hawaii island that’s been hardest hit by the Kilauea volcano eruption, those who lived nearest to the lava flows watched the forest around their homes begin to die first. They said the fruit trees, flowers and ferns began turning brown, languishing in the noxious, sulfur-dioxide-filled air. Then the lava came. Now large swaths of formerly verdant forest have been replaced by rough and barren volcanic terrain.

“Before the eruptions, that area was probably the best forest left in the state of Hawaii,” said Patrick Hart, a biology professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “There were areas where the native Ohia forest extended right up to the ocean, and you just don’t see that in the rest of Hawaii,” he said. Now it’s covered with 20 to 30ft of lava.

. .  The loss to scientists has been great. “There was no place like Kapoho in all of Hawaii,” said John Burns, who spent a decade studying coral in the tide pools, said. “That entire habitat is gone now.” Once the glassy volcanic particles dissipate and the PH and temperature of the water returns to normal, he said, the coral can begin to regrow. But it will be starting from scratch, just as part of that area did when it was formed by lava in the 1950s and 1960s. How fast the coral regrow will depend on whether the lava creates a sloping coastline, or protected pools like it did in Kapoho, which can allow for faster growth than the usual rate of one centimeter per-year.

“In terms of marine organisms and coral, we’re basically starting from day one now.” And yet, he said, it’s easier to lose an irreplaceable reef to lava than it is to lose it to bleaching, which has happened in many places in Hawaii because of a global rise in ocean temperatures. There’s the tragedy of people losing their homes and for us, as scientists, losing our research site. But from the perspective of the environment, this is a natural cycle,” he said. “I’d much rather see a reef die from lava than from bleaching.”

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