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Hawaii volcano can brighten a visitor's day

Image: plume of sulfur dioxide gas and ash rises from Halemaumau Crater
A plume of sulfur dioxide gas and ash rises from Halemaumau Crater atop Kilauea volcano in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on April 8.David Jordan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Visitors to Kilauea's summit have a rare chance to see a red, orange, and yellow glow emanate from a vent at Halemaumau Crater, traditionally considered to be the home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Kilauea has been erupting continuously on the Big Island since 1983 and frequently offers views of lava oozing to the surface and flowing into the sea.

But it's rare for an incandescent glow to be seen at Halemaumau Crater, said Mardie Lane, a spokeswoman for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The bright hot colors are not from lava. Though there is some magma underneath the ground in the area, it hasn't risen to the surface to create lava.

Instead, the colorful hues are created by superheated fumes and steam plumes bursting out of a vent in the crater.

"It's wonderful to look into what is for Hawaiians the traditional home of Pele, and be able to see this glow and this plume rising," Lane said. "In my 27 years in this national park, I've witnessed many incredible sights. And I put this one right up there."

The glow is best seen at sunset and early evening, Lane said. Jagggar Museum, a spot one half-mile from the vent within the park grounds, offers the best vantage point. Rangers have set up a telescope there for visitors who want to get an even closer look.

Those who want to see lava hitting the ocean and adding to the Big Island's land area should go to the end of Highway 130 outside the park. Hawaii County has set up a viewing area from where visitors can see surface flows of lava in the distance. The site also offers views of steam plumes created by lava flowing into the ocean.

Lane said the incandescent glow at Halemaumau Crater has been visible since mid-March, around the time Kilauea exploded for the first time since 1924.

No lava erupted in that incident, which rained rocks across a 75-acre area, suggesting it was caused by hydrothermal or gas buildup.

The crater exploded again late Wednesday.

High levels of sulfur dioxide pouring out of the crater prompted officials to close the park for two days last week.

But park data showed the air quality was fine around Jaggar Museum and the Kilauea Visitor Center Sunday. Sulfur dioxide levels were moderate southwest of the Kilauea caldera and Puu Oo vent but didn't reach unhealthy levels, the National Park Service Web site said.

Lane advised visitors to wear warm clothes when visiting the 4,000 foot-high summit. She also suggested brining binoculars, a telephoto lens, or other equipment to get a better view of the glowing vent.

Visitors must stay on the designated overlook area. Lane said visitors should remember they're standing on the rim of a caldera, which is a giant basin-shaped depression that has steep drop-offs.