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Officials in Hawaii, for good reason, want you to steer clear of the danger zone on the Big Island. But a location on the mainland shows what can happen when lava oozes across the landscape.
GRANTS, N.M. — The stunning images of fiery fountains of lava and molten rock oozing from ground fissures and consuming dozens of homes in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano may be thousands of miles from this small city along historic Route 66 in New Mexico, but roughly 3,000 years ago, a similar scene was playing out in an expansive valley not too far from here.
Back then, however, there weren’t people around with smartphones able to rely video in realtime.
This relatively desolate part of New Mexico, nestled between the Zuni Mountains and Cebolleta Mesa about 80 miles west of Albuquerque, is home to one of the youngest Hawaiian-style lava flows on the U.S. mainland and is part of the larger Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, an area peppered with small cinder cone craters, lava tubes and other volcanic features that’s had an eruptive history dating back millions of years. Nearby is Mount Taylor, an 11,306-foot dormant stratovolcano that volcanologist say has an explosive history that suggests its summit was once a few thousand feet taller.
Because Hawaii County Civil Defense officials currently want you to steer clear of Kilauea’s crater and East Rift Zone due to the danger posed by the lava, gases and risk of steam explosions hurling 10-ton chunks of molten rock, trekking to the El Malpais National Conservation Area and National Monument in New Mexico—like Route Fifty did last week—is perhaps the next best thing for those curious about what happens when magma emerges on the surface as pahoehoe lava that oozes across a landscape like “pancake batter.” That’s how a National Park Service employee at a visitor center just outside Grants described it. But that pancake batter isn’t a benign substance. It’s a dangerous and destructive one that can reshape a local landscape.
In a backgrounder on the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources notes there are “small spatter cones, gas cavities, large wedge-shaped cracks, collapse depressions, large pressure ridges and tumescences,” features Route Fifty found traversing this unusual landscape a few thousand years after the molten rock of the McCartys flow, named for a small town off Route 66 near where the lava ends, hardened along the route of what is today’s Lava Falls Trail. (While it’s a relatively short 1-mile loop, it’s a trek that is not without its risks considering the remoteness, plus all the jagged rock formations and ground fissures, so take standard precautions when hiking in such an isolated place.)
Think of this landscape as a massive misshapen brownie that started in molten form and as it cooled and hardened, created large surface fractures and broken chunks of rock contorted into seemingly random positions.
Unlike other notable explosive volcanic eruptions of recent memory, like Mount St. Helens in 1980, Kilauea’s lava flows in Leilani Estates are more fluid, slow-moving forces of nature. International media attention on the incremental disaster in Hawaii has featured images and footage of some local residents in the area makin valiant, but ultimately hopeless, attempts to save their homes from the advancing lava.
As the past 10 days on the Big Island have shown, nothing—including closing a metal gate—can stop the advancing lava, but local topography and emergence of new ground fissures seems to dictate where it goes. Scientists monitoring and studying Kilauea, and local Civic Defense officials directing the emergency response, at this point don’t know how long the new lava flows will continue and how far they’ll travel and when—or if—area residents can return to the area, assuming they have a home to return to.
Looking out from the Sandstone Bluffs overlook within the boundaries of El Malpais National Monument, you can get a better appreciation for just how massive this type of lava flow can become. Down below the light-colored bluffs in the broad valley, the dark volcanic rock is piled up with vegetation, including small cacti, growing up through gaps in the rocks or from spots where it’s been able to find a foothold.
Looking at satellite imagery of this part of New Mexico, you can see just how large the local lava flows are here—the McCartys flow is just one of many events that have left their mark on the landscape. It just happens to be the young enough that stories of its eruption were passed down through generations of native peoples in the area.
It’s hard to gauge to depth of the lava until you climb on top of it—it’s far taller than the avalanche I hiked on top of last year near downtown Juneau, Alaska—there certainly isn’t an even distribution of lava. There are depressions and places where the lava piled up, including in an area that surrounds what’s called “the amphitheatre,” which as you might be able to guess, is a place surrounded on three sides in a half-bowl shape.
Beyond El Malpais in New Mexico, other places in the U.S. outside Hawaii where you can explore similar lava flows include Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, located near Idaho Falls, and the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, part of a larger caldera located to the south of Bend, Oregon.
In volcanology, few things about eruptions or potential eruptions are certain. And while there aren’t concerns of new eruptive activity at El Malpais, checking out the lava flow offers a good reminder that the ground we stand on isn’t always firm and that the geologic record is far longer than our own on the planet.
In terms of volcanic threats areas of the U.S. face, there are spots that warrant more worry, especially the numerous volcanoes along the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest.
“We’ve got nine volcanoes that really could erupt tomorrow, and we need to treat that as a serious possibility,” Seth Moran, a scientist who leads the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory, recently told The Seattle Times.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is a in Seattle.