Like island oases in an ocean of black rock, kipukas dot the lava fields at Craters of the Moon. Kipuka – a Hawaiian term – describes pockets of older, more vegetated lava surrounded by younger lava flows. More than 500 kipukas are contained in the monument, creating an archipelago of sagebrush and grass amid rock.
How Do Kipukas Form?
A typical kipuka begins as a slight rise in elevation, a bump in the landscape. As lava from nearby volcanoes pours across the surrounding land – but does not cover – this high point, an island of older lava may be separated by younger flows. Relatively lush with plant life compared to the younger surrounding flows, kipukas are often easy to spot.
In the volcanically-active Snake River Plain this cycle has played out repeatedly over millions of years: lava erupts to the surface forming a gentle-sloped shield volcano; it weathers with age, capturing wind-blown soil and developing plant life; nearby volcanoes unleash a rising tide of new lava flows that surround the vegetated summit of the older volcano; the sagebrush island is ultimately swallowed by ever-younger flows, starting the cycle anew.
Kipukas at Craters of the Moon
The more than 500 kipukas at the monument range in size from less than one acre up to tens of thousands of acres. Laidlaw Park is the monument's largest kipuka at 84,400 acres. Ringed by a narrow, passable strip of lava the massive kipuka has been altered by roads, grazing, and invasive weeds for a century. More common are less-disturbed kipukas like Carey Kipuka, a few hundred acres in size and embedded deeper within the protective barrier of rugged lava.
In 1962 John F. Kennedy added Carey Kipuka to the monument with the stroke of his presidential pen. Isolated from the disturbances common in Laidlaw Park and the rest of the Snake River Plain, its unaltered ecosystem became rare and valuable. Ecologists today use the kipuka's healthy community of sagebrush and grasses as a model guiding restoration of native vegetation in the monument and beyond. It and several other kipukas are now further protected as Research Natural Areas for long-term scientific study.
Along with entire plant communities kipukas are also home to notable individual plant species. Some of the oldest juniper trees in Idaho thrive in lava-protected kipukas within the monument. Additional legislative protection came in 2000 when President Clinton added greatly to the monument, citing the rarity and scientific importance of kipukas among other considerations.