spaceSpace and Physics

This Astronaut's Brilliant Shot Of The Kilauea Eruption Will Make You Feel Incredibly Small


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Lava from everyone's favourite fissure - number 8 - continues to pour out into a well-established channel. USGS via Facebook

It may not be making headlines like it used to, but Kilauea’s eruption is still taking place.

The summit crater continues to eat up the land around it as the drainage of the underlying magma reservoir causes the cauldron up there to subside. At the same time, lava continues to flow from the cracks in the Lower East Rift Zone (LERZ) for the seventh consecutive week, and the fire and fury emerging from the hyperactive Fissure 8 has caught the attention of someone hundreds of kilometers overhead.


As spotted by and Earther, NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold – currently aboard the International Space Station – managed to take a rather haunting photograph of Fissure 8’s molten madness back on June 20. Describing the lava hue as “pumpkin orange,” Arnold captured the lava flow that’s proved to be simultaneously destructive and creative, framed by the thin blue line of our planet.


This photograph, at a glance, is certainly nothing less than beautiful – as well as being perfectly timed – but it tells us more than you might think.

The footage coming out of the area on Kilauea’s flanks, much of which has been provided by the ever-marvelous United States Geological Survey (USGS), certainly looks quite dramatic and hellish. We’ve seen houses being destroyed, new land being born along the (currently apocalyptic-looking) Kapoho Bay, and entire lakes vaporized in less than two hours.

Saying that, at the beginning of the month – when the USGS released some numbers and stats in order to quantify what we’ve all been gawping at – the lava flows had only covered 0.2 percent of the entirety of Hawaii’s Big Island. This number has likely not changed that much since, which means that although certainly dangerous and aesthetically thrilling in equal measure, the eruption is still somewhat miniature in the grand scheme of things.


This photograph puts that idea into stark relief. That conflagration filmed by journalists, scientists and aircraft suddenly looks a lot more like a tiny collection of embers when framed against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean during the twilight before the dawn. It even pales into insignificance compared to the atmospheric blue blade betraying the Sun’s morning debut in the left of the shot.

Such is the power of images of Earth from space, whether taken by satellites or by astronauts themselves. Aside from gaining new scientific information, it also gives us some perspective.

Often, on the ground, when faced with volcanic eruptions either dangerous or tragic, it often it appears it’s us against nature. From space, everything appears to simply blur together on a pale blue dot – an aquamarine speck flecked with fire.


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