History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
On Thursday, May 3, 2018, the Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano began sending bright orange licks of lava spewing from a newly opened fissure in its side. Over the next few weeks, more fissures developed, and lava coursed through the surrounding neighborhoods and spilled into the sea, while thick plumes of ash and smoke billowed over 30,000 feet into the air.
Soon after the volcano showed signs of roaring to life, scientists began to draw comparisons to an eruption that occurred over 60 years earlier in the same East Rift Zone of Kilauea. On February 28, 1955, the volcano made its tumultuous presence known in an eruption that immediately caused a forest fire and sent locals running for their lives. Now, over two months after Kilauea has once again started down a path of destruction, the comparisons to the eruption of 1955, which caused the volcano to rage for 88 days, continue to grow even stronger.
When Kilauea Came to Life in 1955
The first few days of the 1955 eruption were disastrous. The lava displaced residents, ruined coffee plantations and burned down forests. Despite this deadly activity, onlookers weren’t quite sure what was in store. Two days after the eruption began, it started to slow down, leading The New York Times to observe that it had “erupted like a lion Monday and went out like a lamb today with only a gentle hiss of steam.”
But, as with this latest eruption, Kilauea was just getting started. Only four days after that optimistic observation, The New York Times was again reporting that residents of the Big Island were fighting for their lives. On the sixth straight day of eruptions, the volcano “sent a flaming river of molten lava rumbling toward the beach town of Pohoiki. The town was evacuated hurriedly. Further inland, the village of Kapoho was nearly sealed off, as steaming rock oozed past both sides on the way to the sea.” Over $1 million in losses were already being projected at the lava-filled sugar can fields and papaya groves nearby. Kilauea would continue to erupt for 82 more days.
Hawaii Is No Stranger to Active Volcanoes
As a chain of islands, Hawaii, owes its existence to volcanoes, and those fiery beasts continue to give back to their native land. There are five volcanoes on just the big island of Hawaii alone. One is considered extinct and another dormant, but of the three remaining volcanoes, Kilauea is both the youngest and the most active.
Over the past few centuries, this volcano has seen its fair share of action. While modern evidence of lava flows go back as early as 1750, the Washington Post reported that scientists have used chemical dating to pin the largest eruption on record to 1840, when enough lava flowed out of the earth to fill 35 football stadiums. Kilauea has continued to erupt frequently over the ensuing decades, and since 1983, the volcano has more or less been erupting continuously. On most days, this creates a thriving tourist attraction, but during eruptions like the current one, the effects can be disastrous and deadly.
Back to the Volcanic Future
Over the course of 88 days in 1955, 24 separate volcanic vents opened, allowing lava to flow out and spread over 4,000 acres. The lava flows even invaded nearby residential neighborhoods, leaving 21 homes devastated.
“Sections of every public road to the coastline were buried by lava,” Jim Kauahikaua of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory recently told Hawaii News Now of the 1955 eruption.
It was the first time this section of the volcano had erupted since 1840, and it was the first time in U.S. history that a volcano had become deadly this close to a residential area. Now, history is repeating. Kilauea has been erupting for 65 days. Nearly two dozen fissures have developed, and, with no signs of it stopping any time soon, the devastation is already mounting.
As U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist Wendy Stovall told USA Today in the early days of the eruption, “There’s more magma (underground lava) in the system to be erupted. As long as that supply is there, the eruption will continue.”