1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Ranger Arnold Nakata
David Jordan  /  AP file
Ranger Arnold Nakata of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park approaches a lava tube April 11, 2008, to measure the levels of hazardous gases being discharged from the opening near Kalapana, Hawaii. Volcanoes have been central to stories told by Hawaiians for centuries. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters.
updated 4/1/2009 2:33:38 PM ET 2009-04-01T18:33:38

The largest and southernmost of the Hawaiian islands is shaking, spitting and stretching as it slowly expands into the ocean.

You'll see and feel reminders of this almost everywhere during your trip to Hawaii Island, which most locals call the Big Island.

On the southern shore, streams of lava pour from lava volcano into the ocean where they form new land.

In some neighborhoods, you'll see fields of black, cooled lava that have poured from Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in recent decades.

Sometimes the ground shakes as gravity pulls on the accumulated piles of lava. But don't let a fear of temblors prevent you from visiting: the vast majority of these earthquakes are far too weak to feel. Big earthquakes measuring magnitude 6 or more tend to only hit the state about once a decade.

Volcanoes have been central to stories told by Hawaiians for centuries.

Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters.

She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. It's said that Pele stomps on the floor of her fire pit when she wants to summon lava, hot rocks, steam and smoke.

Building the Big Island
You can see for yourself how Pele's lava is building the Big Island if you visit now. Kilauea volcano has been erupting simultaneously in two places for over a year, something that's unprecedented in 200 years of its recorded history.

The first of these eruptions has been spilling lava across the southern part of the Big Island since 1983, swallowing roads, homes and even entire towns.

Fresh flows from this eruption are currently slithering into the ocean near Kalapana, a formerly robust town that was mostly buried in lava in 1990.

  1. More from TODAY.com
    1. After years of silence, Monica Lewinsky speaks about cyber bullying

      Monica Lewinsky is back in the public eye, and she's using the attention to bash bullying. Lewinsky got emotional on Monda...

    2. Watch Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder honor doctor onstage at concert
    3. Former 'American Idol' contestant Joanne Borgella dies at 32
    4. 'American Idol's' Scott MacIntyre hoping for new kidney in 6 months
    5. ‘Marcel the Shell’ returns, remains adorable in so-cute-it-hurts video

Kilauea is also erupting from Halemaumau crater at the summit. That's where a large explosion opened a vent in March 2008, leading to the daily release of hundreds of tons of sulfur dioxide. Kilauea has spit small fragments of lava from Halemaumau but hasn't released any lava flows from here.

You can watch the summit eruption from a lookout point inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It's humbling to see the crater's gas plume rise hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of feet into the air from a vent larger than a football field.

From the visitor's center inside the park, you can join ranger-guided hikes to see cinder cones and now-solidified lava lakes created by previous eruptions. Some of the walks meander through rainforests. Visitors can even venture into an old lava tube — a tunnel through which lava once streamed.

Getting near flowing lava can be dangerous, so it is vital that visitors follow guidelines set by the national park and Hawaii County.

Park ranger Mardie Lane said most visitors comply with the rules and have no problems. But in 1993, a lava-watcher was swept away when the unstable lava bench he stood on collapsed. Nine years ago, two visitors died after inhaling steam near a point where hot lava enters the ocean.

Hawaii County, which operates the ocean entry lava viewing point near Kalapana, outside the park, has designated a safe lava viewing area and cordoned off fragile lava benches.

Don't be disappointed if you are prohibited from standing next to the lava flow. Watching lava slide into the ocean is powerful even from a distance.

Where lava meets the sea
At the Hawaii County lava viewing point one recent evening, a few dozen visitors oohed and aahed as they watched a large steam plume rise into the air as scalding hot lava hit the chilly sea near Kalapana.

The plume glowed pink whenever lava slithered into the ocean from an above-ground lava tube prompting viewers to gasp and murmur.

County workers on duty at the viewing site have spent most of their lives next to lava.

Emily Hauanio saw her hometown of Kapaahu submerged in molten rock in the 1980s. She says Pele was cleansing the land so she wasn't upset.

"There was a lot more people coming in. Our famous swimming holes were getting polluted," said Hauanio, a Hawaiian whose family has lived in the area for generations. "It was time for her to come in and clean up the mess. That's the way I felt. And that's what she did."

Another county guide, Malia Mendes, whose grandmother's home was one of the only Kalapana structures spared by lava, was also accepting.

"It's nature's way. It was meant to be," said Mendes, who is also Hawaiian.

Hawaii's volcanoes are created by an underwater "hotspot" where magma from deep inside the earth has been poking through the earth's crust for at least 80 million years.

Few other places on Earth have a hotspot forming new land. One is the North Atlantic, where a small island called Surtsey grew off the southern coast of Iceland in the 1960s.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed as the Pacific plate — one of the earth's eight major tectonic plates — has slowly edged northwest over t he stationary hotspot.

The Big Island, the newest in this chain, is made up of five adjacent volcanoes, most of them still active.

Kilauea is the youngest of the five, having started erupting underwater 300,000 to 600,000 years ago. Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, Kilauea grew tall enough to emerge from the sea.

Most of the volcanoes on the other, older Hawaiian islands are now extinct. The exception is Haleakala on Maui which last erupted in the late 1700s.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Hawaiian paradise

loading photos...
  1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai

    Kalalau Valley, on Kauai's west side, is more than 3,000 feet deep and provides stunning panoramic views. Waimea is nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (John Borthwick / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Men row their Hawaiian outrigger canoe towards Waikiki beach, with Diamond Head in the background. Outrigger canoes are now used for recreation purposes and to ride the waves, but in times past they were the main means of transportation between the Hawaiian Islands. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The tranquil waters of Oahu

    Hanauma Bay is one of the finest stretches of beach in the world. (Eric L Wheater / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Surfer's paradise

    Australian Luke Egan competes on Oahu's North Shore, one of the best places in Hawaii to ride the big waves. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water colors

    A school of manini fish pass over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wailua Falls

    The beautiful 83-foot tiered Wailua Falls is an easily accessible, must-see waterfall on the island of Kauai. Wailua Falls was first made famous when it was featured in the television show, "Fantasy Island." (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Emerald peaks

    The iconic, towering emerald peaks of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, stand out in Maui's Iao Valley State Park. (Adina Tovy Amsel / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historic reminder

    The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marks the resting place of many of the battleship's 1,177 crew members who lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese. The memorial is the "ground zero" of World War II. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aloha!

    Hula dancers welcome the sailing crew of a Hokule'a, a canoe, into Kailua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The heart of Hawaii

    The sun sets on Honolulu, Oahu's capital and Hawaii's largest, most populous city. (Robert Y. Ono / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Polynesian heat

    Brandon OFueo Maneafaiga, 23, of Waianae, Hawaii balances two flaming knifes during the 13th Annual World Fireknife Championship at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Laie, Hawaii. (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    People watch from a viewing area as an explosion takes place on Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters. She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. (Leigh Hilbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Forces of nature

    The Dragon's Teeth are bizarre lava formations eroded by wind and salt spray at Makalua-puna Point. (Karl Lehmann / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Heaven on Earth

    Astronomy observatories are seen on the peak of the snow-covered, Mauna Kea mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano. (Tim Wright / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. On the way to Sainthood

    Tourists walk through a cemetery past the grave, left, of Father Damien at Kalawao, Hawaii. After cancer patient Audrey Toguchi prayed to Father Damien, known for helping leprosy patients in Hawaii, to help her, and her cancer went away, Pope Benedict XVI approved the case in July 2008 as Damien's second miracle, opening the way for the 19th century Belgian priest to be declared a saint. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Cool colors

    Rainbow eucalyptus (Mindanao Gum) trees grow in Keanae, Maui. Once a year, these magnificent trees shed their bark and take on the colors of the rainbow. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Magic Sands

    An aerial view of La'aloa Beach Park or Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The beach is called Magic Sands because when rough surf hits, all of the sand is emptied off the beach and temporarily moved out to sea. (Brian Powers / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Ashley Landis / EPA

    Watch Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder honor doctor onstage at concert

    10/20/2014 10:12:53 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T22:12:53
  1. Michael Becker / Getty Images

    'American Idol's' Scott MacIntyre hoping for new kidney in 6 months

    10/21/2014 12:12:49 AM +00:00 2014-10-21T00:12:49
  1. Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images

    After years of silence, Monica Lewinsky speaks about cyber bullying

    10/20/2014 11:27:26 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T23:27:26
  1. Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

    Former 'American Idol' contestant Joanne Borgella dies at 32

    10/20/2014 10:31:52 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T22:31:52
  1. Three big expenses you'll save on this fall

    10/20/2014 1:35:24 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T13:35:24
  1. Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images

    Kristen Bell talks about using sign language with young daughter

    10/20/2014 11:17:07 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T23:17:07