Categorized | Sci-Tech

Volcano Watch: Lava flows, cow pastures coexist in Kahuku

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

In 2003, almost two-thirds of the Kahuku Ranch in south Hawaii Island was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Many viewed the purchase as a big win for conservation, because the large property contained many diverse ecosystems, and the focus could shift from ranching to preservation and restoration of the native environments.

The purchase also included nearly the entire active southwest rift zone of Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth. Since the establishment of ranching on Hawaii Island in the early 1800s, the southwest rift zone of Mauna Loa has erupted eight times (1868, 1887, 1903, 1907, 1916, 1919, 1926 and 1950).

At the lower elevations most appropriate for ranching, the land within the Kahuku ahupuaa ranges from lush pasture growing on deep ash soils, nourished by trade wind driven showers on the east, to barren lava fields to the west. In the early 1800s, the transition between the two extremes was gradual.

The Mauna Loa southwest rift zone eruptions significantly sharpened the transition by progressively replacing pasture with lava at elevations optimum for ranching (below 1,500 m or 5,000 ft). At least three of the earliest eruptions also initiated a change in ranch ownership.

The first and lowest-elevation eruption began in 1868 with the onset of earthquakes in late March.

On April 2, an estimated magnitude-7.9 earthquake produced extensive damage throughout the district and generated a mudflow and a local tsunami that killed 81 people. The earthquakes continued and, five days later, an eruption from Mauna Loa’s lower southwest rift zone produced a fast-moving pahoehoe flow.

Observers in a passing ship noted that the lava flow advanced from the vent to the ocean, a distance of 16 km (10 mi), in three-and-a-half hours.

The 1868 flow destroyed the house of Capt. Robert Brown, who was managing the ranch for his brother, Theophilus. The flow advanced so quickly on the house that Captain Brown and his family escaped with only the clothes on their backs.

Soon after the eruption, Theophilus sold the ranch to a hui (group) that included George Jones, who bought out his partners’ interests to became sole owner in 1877.

Another Mauna Loa eruption in 1887 produced an aa flow to the west of the 1868 eruption. From vent to ocean, the flow advanced 24 km (15 mi) in about 29 hours and came close – but did not damage – Jones’ residential compound.

The real impact of the 1887 eruption on Jones’ ranch was the flow of sightseers. George was known as a very hospitable man and, for several weeks, was forced to suspend operations in order to accommodate the hordes of curious visitors.

About a year-and-a-half after the 1887 eruption, Jones sold the ranch to Col. Samuel Norris. Norris, described as eccentric and peculiar, was not hospitable to his fellow Caucasians. Another Mauna Loa eruption in 1907 produced lava flows to the west of the 1887 and 1868 flows, further reducing pasture lands. Tourists flocking to the new flows were not welcomed by the new ranch owner.

Norris was 66 when he bought the ranch. In 1910, when he realized he was dying, Norris essentially gave away the ranch, “selling” it to his long-time friend, Charles Macomber, for a dollar, complaining that lava flows had devalued the property. Norris died a few months later.

In 1912, Macomber sold the ranch to W.O. Carter (making a profit of $89,999) for inclusion in the famed Parker Ranch.

The upper reaches of the ranch were overrun by lava in 1903, 1916, and 1926 but these eruptions did not precipitate a sale as the earlier ones had. After 1947, Kahuku Ranch changed hands two more times before the 2003 acquisition and addition to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The early decades of ranching in southern Hawaii Island must have been difficult and, in Kahuku, success was made even harder by the encroaching volcanic activity. But ranchers and cowboys are not easily deterred, and the Hawaii cattle industry quickly became the paniolo culture that we appreciate today.

Ranching continues on Hawaii Island, but nowhere else has it coexisted with so many lava flows. For more on the history of Kahuku Ranch and its paniolos, check out a new book, “History of Kahuku Ranch” by Marge and Dennis Elwell.

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