So what’s happening here? (I thought you’d never ask.)
The orange glow at the bottom of this frame is light from 1,800° F lava bubbling in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater atop Hawaii’s Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. It’s also a beautiful example of the final act of our planet’s auto-recycling process.
Propelled by the mantle’s inexorable convection engine, Earth’s tectonic plates endlessly jostle about, sometimes sliding past each other, often colliding. When the lighter of the colliding plates is pushed upward, mountains form. While this is happening, the denser plate is forced downward, beneath the uplifting plate, a process called subduction. As the downward force persists, the subjected crust continues downward into the mantle, where intense heat melts the rock until it’s absorbed into the mantle.
Around the globe subduction is constantly, albeit very slowly (on the human scale), adding new material to the mantle. To make room for this new material, magma somewhere else is forced out at weak points in Earth’s crust and volcanoes are born. Sometimes these volcanoes push up above the land in front of the subducting plate—that’s what’s happening in the Cascade Range of the the Pacific Northwest.
A hot spot can also form in the middle of a tectonic plate. For the last 40 million years the Pacific Plate has drifted slowly northwest above a hot spot, leaving a string of 80 or so volcanoes in its wake. Most of these have since eroded away, or never made it to the surface at all. The Hawaiian Islands as the youngest in this island chain, haven’t had time to erode into their eventual oblivion. The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest of the islands, and the only one still volcanically active, though it’s believed that Maui isn’t completely finished.
Another island, Kamaehuakanaloa Seamount, is building up south of Hawaii and should make its appearance sometime in the next 100,000 years (could be much sooner). But until that happens, we get to enjoy Kilauea—and eventually (inevitably) Mauna Loa (last eruption, 1984), Hualalai (last eruption, 1801), and maybe even Kohala (last eruption, 120,000 years ago) and Mauna Kea (last eruption 4 million years ago) could come back to life.
The vertical white band above the crater represents world building on an entirely different scale. You no doubt recognize it as light cast by billions of stars at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. So dense and distant are the stars in the Milky Way’s core, their individual points are lost to the surrounding glow. The dark patches partially obscuring the Milky Way core’s glow are large swaths of interstellar gas and dust, the leftovers of stellar explosions—and the stuff of future stars. Completing the scene are pinpoint stars in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way, stars close enough that we see them as discrete points of light that humans imagine into mythical shapes: the constellations.
The Milky Way galaxy is home to every single star we see when we look up at night, and 300 billion (-ish) more we can’t see—that’s nearly 50 stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth in our galaxy alone. And recent estimates put the total number of galaxies in the Universe at 2 trillion—a number too large to comprehend.
Our Sun, the central cog in the Solar System, is an insignificant outpost in the Milky Way suburbs. It resides in a spiral arm, a little more than halfway between the urban congestion at the galaxy’s core and the empty wilderness of open space.
Everything we see is made possible by light—light created by the object itself (like the stars and lava), or created elsewhere and reflected (like the planets, or Halemaʻumaʻu’s walls). Light travels incredibly fast, fast enough that it can span even the two most distant points on Earth faster than humans can perceive, fast enough that we consider its arrival from any terrestrial origin instantaneous. But distances in space are so great that we don’t measure them in terrestrial units of distance like miles or kilometers. Instead, we measure interstellar distance by the time it takes a photon of light to travel between two objects: one light-year is the distance light travels in one year—nearly 5.9 trillion miles.
The ramifications of cosmic distances are mind-bending. While the caldera’s proximity makes its glow about as “right now” as anything in our Universe can be—for all intents and purposes, the caldera and its viewers are sharing the same instant in time. On the other hand, the light from the stars above the caldera is tens, hundreds, or thousands of years old—it’s new to me, but to the stars it’s old history.
Imagine Proxima d, a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, a mere four light-years distant and the star closest to our solar system. If we had a telescope with enough resolving power to see all the way down to Proxima d’s surface, we’d be watching what was happening there four years ago. Likewise, if someone on Proxima d today (2022) were peering at us, they’d be viewing a pre-Covid world and learn that Dunkin’ Donuts was dropping “Donuts” from their name (how did I miss that?). Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, which paused its activity in August 2018, would be black. (Anything you regret doing in the last 4 years? Take heart in the knowledge that everywhere in the Universe outside our Solar System, it hasn’t happened yet.)
So what’s the point of all this mind bending? Perspective, I guess. To me, the best landscape images don’t just tip the “that’s beautiful” scale, they also activate deeper insights into our relationship with the natural world. And few things do that better for me than combining, in one frame, light that’s 25,000 years old with light caused by the formation of Earth’s newest rock.
About this image
In 2018, after years of reliable activity, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater went out in a blaze of glory. This renewed vigor included fountaining lava, daily earthquakes, and the complete collapse of the crater as I’d known it.
Even more impactful, lava draining from the summit flowed into the Pacific to create nearly 900 acres of brand new land, on the way overrunning nearly 14 square miles of land and destroying more than 500 homes. The spectacle ended in August, one month before that year’s Big Island workshop.
Kilauea’s current eruption started in September 2021, just two weeks after that year’s workshop ended. Between sporadic eruptions and Covid, I haven’t been able to enjoy one of my favorite sights, the Milky Way above an active Kilauea, since 2017. Needless to say, in the weeks leading up to this year’s trip I kept my fingers crossed that Kilauea would keep going. It didn’t disappoint.
Given the caldera’s collapse and the new eruption, I knew things on Kilauea were completely different from any previous visit. So on my first evening back on the Big Island (I always fly in 3 days before the workshop to check all my locations), I made the 40 minute drive up from Hilo to get my eyes on it.
At the vista that once housed the now closed Jagger Volcano Museum, and that used to be the primary place to view the eruption, I started chatting with a photographer who was set up with a long telephoto, waiting for the full moon to rise. It turned out that she volunteers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and does a lot of photography for the park. She very generously provided me with great information that saved me a lot of scouting time, including the best places to view the new eruption, and how to avoid the crowds I’d heard so much about.
Based on her input, after sunset I parked at the Kilauea Visitor Center and took a 1/2 mile walk along the Crater Rim Trail to the point where my new friend had promised the lava would be visible. I chose this spot over the closer view that most people seemed to prefer for a couple of reasons: fewer people (and easier parking), it would be an easier walk for my group (you can only go as far, or as fast, as the slowest person), and (especially) because I thought it would align better with the Milky Way.
To say that I was thrilled with the new view would be an understatement. Though clouds obscured the Milky Way that evening, I was pretty confident the alignment would be fine—not the perfect alignment I got from the spot I’d always used before, but definitely close enough that it would be no problem getting the eruption and Milky Way in the same frame.
The thing that excited me most was that I could actually see the lava. In my 12 years visiting Kilauea, I’ve only been able to see lava at the summit once (check the gallery below)—in the other visits we could clearly see the lava’s beautiful orange glow, but the lava lake was too low to be visible from the rim. But now not only was the lava visible, the perspective was close enough to actually see it bubbling and splattering on the lake’s surface. I hadn’t brought my camera, but I took a quick snap with my iPhone, then walked back to the car in the dark, pretty stoked by what I’d be able to share with my group.
I returned to the volcano the next night to check out more locations, especially interested in my old viewing spot. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still see the glow at least as well as I could with the earlier eruption, and that it still aligned perfectly with the Milky Way.
I took my workshop group up to Kilauea on our second night—since it’s a real highlight, I like to do the volcano early in the workshop so we can come back if clouds shut us out. After a few other stops waiting for darkness, we started the short (and easy) hike out to the new lava viewing sight shortly after sunset.
Fog hovering over the caldera obscured the sky at the vista, but no one cared because for most (all?), it was the first time they’d seen lava. Without stars, this was a total telephoto shot—since everyone in the group was shooting mirrorless, we could all magnify our viewfinder and get an up-close, live look at the bubbling lava. It appeared to be bursting from a vent near the caldera wall, like a massive waterfall springing from a mountainside. In addition to the constant rolling and popping on the lake’s surface, every minute or so we could see a much bigger explosion that sent lava careening about the crater—pretty cool for all of us.
I spent most of my time working with people in the group and didn’t photograph too much. Eventually I did manage a few telephoto frames and was pretty happy with how things were going in general—not so much for my images, but mostly because everyone seemed as excited as I’d hoped they’d be.
About the time I was thinking of heading over to my other spot, the fog suddenly thinned and the Milky Way appeared. Everyone immediately switched to wide angle lenses and started working on completely different images. For the next 20 minutes or so we alternated between clicking and waiting as the fog came and went. Again I spent much of that time working with my group, but I managed to get in a few Milky Way frames, including this one.
I’ve got my Milky Way exposure down, and focus for this image was actually easier than most Milky Way scenes because of the brightness in the caldera. Since the Milky Way requires an exposure too long to freeze most motion, all detail in the lava was lost, but I still think it’s pretty cool to know what that glow really is. (Full disclosure: I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool to fill in a tiny blown-out white patch where the hottest lava was too bright for my night exposure.) The biggest problem I had to deal with is the guy standing next to me (not in my group), who insisted on using a red light (great for telescope or naked eye view, but absolutely the worst light source for night photography). So I had to time my clicks for the times he turned it off, then hope he kept if off until my exposure complete.
Eventually the clouds thickened and showed no sign of leaving. Since everyone was pretty happy with what they had, we packed up and headed back. But it turns out we weren’t done, because by the time we made it backto the cars, the stars were back out—so I took everyone over to my other view. There was no fog at this spot and the Milky Way remained out the entire time we were there. We had another great shoot, despite a crazy wind that hadn’t bothered us at all at our first spot. But that’s a story for another day…
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE