Travel tips from a Hawaiian volcano

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    Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY
    Published 12:00 p.m. ET March 15, 2019

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    You can learn a lot about travel from a volcano. That’s what Rick Hazlett, a volcanologist and professor emeritus of environmental analysis and geology at Pomona College, will tell you – and he’s right.

    Hazlett led one of the response teams during last spring’s volcanic eruption in Hawaii. His group coordinated with civil defense and law enforcement to help keep residents safe from Kilauea’s erupting fissures and lava flows.

    What can a shield volcano in the middle of the Pacific teach you about being a better traveler? Plenty, says Hazlett.

    Want to travel like a volcanologist? Have a backup plan

    Maybe you saw the videos of Hazlett calmly talking about Kilauea while the volcano spewed steam and lava behind him. I wanted to know how he managed to keep his cool.

    “You have to have a Plan B,” he told me. “I kept a map of the street grid in my head. Once I got a handle on the geography and became comfortable with a location, I wasn’t worried. I knew that new vents wouldn’t open up outside a certain predictable zone.”

    Still, Hazlett and his team always had a backup plan – just in case. They kept in mind all available escape routes in the event the lava flow took an unexpected turn.

    Having a Plan B is also important when you’re on the road, and Hazlett has been on the road researching in many remote areas.

    “Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands,” he remembers. “On a clear day, the Aleutians is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But when the fog and stormy weather roll in, you can get grounded in one place for days at a time.”

    Once, Hazlett was stuck tent-bound on Unalaska Island for three days while researching Makushin Volcano in Alaska. That’s when he learned the importance of packing a good book – and a lot of patience.

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    Redundant communication helps you travel better

    Kilauea also taught Hazlett and his team about the importance of effective communication. During the volcanic eruption, the geologists relied on an open-source messaging app to communicate. But there were a few problems with the program, which relied on cellular technology. The south side of Hawaii didn’t have reliable coverage.

    “It also had a spell-checker,” says Hazlett. “It didn’t do well with Hawaiian names.”

    Although he eventually figured out a way to disable the spell-checker, the team continued to be challenged communicating, even though they had redundant systems that included radios and tracking technology.

    “If you can’t communicate easily or continuously, it adds to the stress,” he says.

    That wisdom doesn’t only apply to driving through endangered subdivisions, trying to avoid new fissures, flowing lava and the choking gases they emit. It also applies to more mundane car and plane trips, where communicating with your travel companions or with the carrier can make the difference between a great trip and a disaster. And it’s a reminder to get on the same platform and mind the little – in Hawaiian “manini” – potential glitches, such as spell-checkers that work overtime.

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    Always be a step ahead (or you could end up in a volcano)

    Volcanoes are dangerous and often unpredictable. Even if you’re one of the most respected volcanologists on the planet, they can catch you by surprise. Hazlett, who has lost several colleagues and friends in eruptions, has also had a few close calls.

    “You don’t know exactly when or even if an eruption is going to happen,” he says. To stay safe, it’s wise to stay a step ahead of the volcano, carefully observing the landscape while gathering essential data and noting where new fissures and lava flows are likely to appear. It isn’t so much a question of predicting what will happen next – that’s impossible – but taking what’s knowable and projecting a likely outcome.

    That’s solid advice for any traveler, because travel can sometimes be as unpredictable as a volcano. You can anticipate certain things, like holiday traffic on the interstate highway or a late-winter blizzard that shuts down an airport. Other things, like mechanical delays or natural disasters, you can’t.

    Thanks to volcanoes like Kilauea, Hazlett is a better traveler. A little research,  more efficient communication, and patience have paved the way for a less stressful trip – even if it’s a drive up a mountain that’s on the verge of a volcanic eruption.

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    More volcano travel tips

    • Where’s the volcano? Kilauea, a volcano on the southeastern coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, roared to life on April 30, 2018, when the floor of the Puu Oo Crater in the east rift zone suddenly collapsed, and continued erupting through the middle of summer. The volcano is still active but quieter as recovery efforts continue.

    • Get up close. The best way to see it is by visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a short drive from Hilo (nps.gov/havo). Check at the visitors’ center for for a free 45-minute guided tour of the volcano, and then take a short walk to  view the caldera from various overlooks. Other hiking trails take you through exotic rainforests, the strange and interesting Kau desert, and to the wild and scenic south coast.

    • Take a helicopter tour. Several operators, including Blue Hawaiian (bluehawaiian.com), Hawaii Volcanoes Helicopter Tours (hawaiivolcanoexpeditions.com) and Safari Helicopters (safarihelicopters.com), offer island tours that get you even closer to the eruption.

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.

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