Astrogeology Science Center

Science Fact or Fiction: does Kilauea skylight show a place of eternal unrest?

28 June 2018

Social media is gobbling up a photograph of a West Kamokuna lava skylight captured back in 1996 by Astrogeology Science Center Director and volcanologist, Dr. Laszlo Kestay. It isn’t just any skylight photo. Some have esteemed it the most interesting photo they have ever observed and even view it as a work of art. Others think the photograph is fake and still others think it depicts a portal to eternal punishment.

 Kilauea Skylight

West Kamokuna Skylight. Photo Credit: Laszlo Kestay, USGS. Public domain


Dr. Laszlo Kestay has responded to queries about this digitized slide taken, in 1996, during fieldwork within Hawaii Volcanoes National park, done by the USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory.

Such skylights are generally off-limits to park visitors because they are very dangerous to approach due to the possibility of further roof collapses and the extremely hot air that blows out of the skylight.

The current activity on Kilauea has captured media and public attention because it is impacting large numbers of residences. The resulting increased search for images of lava in Hawaii could be the reason the photo was rediscovered.

This particular skylight, Dr. Laszlo Kestay explains, was located on the coastal flats below Pulama Pali, an excellent location for conducting scientific observations. The photogenic toes of pahoehoe lava frozen around the sides of the skylight are from a lava flow that moved across the skylight and sent lava cascading back into the tube.

During much of the 35 years of the Kilauea eruption, lava has quietly flowed from the Puu Oo vent to the ocean through insulating lava tubes. These lava tubes form as small (ankle-to-knee deep) pahoehoe. These flows are "inflated" by the injection of more lava into their still molten interior, resulting in lava flows a few meters (yards) thick. The movement of the lava becomes focused into narrow pathways as less favorable routes freeze. This "river" of lava flowing under an insulating crust is a lava tube. In some locations, this roof collapses, providing a "skylight" onto the stream of fluid lava.

“Having an active surface flow cross over an active skylight is a bit of a rare coincidence, so this was definitely worth taking a photo - even back in the days of film cameras where you had quite a limited number of shots you could take,” said Dr. Kestay.

By Janet Richie