The Steam Vents at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

steam vents

When we entered the steam vents thermal area at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, my friend Loli said it reminded her of Yellowstone National Park. I can see that, but I also feel it is more in line with Lassen National Park. In particular, Bumpass Hell, minus the boiling mud pots.

At the steam vents we encountered many fumaroles, which emit hot gases with a sulfur odor. Not as bad as rotten eggs, though, which is more the norm. When I mentioned it didn’t stink as much as I would expect, the guide said Pele’s breath is sweeter. I wish he would have explained the scientific reason. Science is real, despite what our present administration might spout.

steam vents

When water seeps into the hot volcanic rock, it produces steam. Not much vegetation can survive in such extremely warm temperatures in the ground. This is why you will see a lot of tall grasses and a few plants, but no huge trees at the steam vents.

steam vents

This is the flower of the lehua ohi’a tree. These are prized for garlands and leis, but Rapid O’hia Death is claiming so many trees that Hawaii asks we not pick the flowers. Scientists recently discovered the source of the fungus that’s been killing the ohi’a trees, and it is carried by a certain beetle.

The lehua o’hia tree is simply amazing. It grows on lava, often as the first vegetation, and it can turn lava rock into soil. The soil allows other types of vegetation to grow. When the air turns bad due to vog, the o’hia tree can hold its breath until the vog clears, up to a week. The lehua o’hia tree is truly a tree of survival and the birther of life.

Everybody repeats the same Hawaiian story about how the o’hia tree came to be. Legend has it that O’hia was a very attractive man, and Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, took one look and became infatuated with O’hia. She tried her best to lure him away, but O’hia was in love with Lehua. So Pele turned O’hia into a tree and Lehua into the flower. Today the tree is known as the Lehua O’hia. Lehua means the flower AND the tree.

steam vents

Here is the first view after rounding the bend at the steam vents in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. There is a walkway, raised decking, that circles through the thermal area, like many visitors paths at national parks. It’s about a 3/4 mile hike to traverse.

One of the stories guides like to tell about the steam vents is that they are not caused by ground water creeping into volcanic rock but instead is Pele’s breath. They will do a trick such as light a piece of paper on fire and hold it over the steam vent. Suddenly, the steam emissions dramatically increase. See? They will exclaim, it is the goddess of fire responding in excitement.

It is science. I can’t tell you the exact physics of why this happens, but I do know it is scientific in origin.

steam vents

Like the flowers I found at Fissure 8 tours in Leilani Estates, this is the same wild orchid. I see it referred to in other places as a purple orchid. Amazing, how something so beautifully shaped and fragile appearing can survive in the harshest of environments.

There is so much to see and do in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park that even a week is not enough time to spend here.

Elizabeth Weintraub

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