Lava Tubes

A lava tube lit by electric lights
Nāhuku- Thurston Lava Tube (NPS Photo/D. Boyle)
 
A hole in a solidified lava flow with glowing molten lava underneath, a man walks on top of the solidified flow
A peek through a "skylight" into the interior of an active lava tube (USGS Photo/J. Judd)
As islands created by volcanoes, Hawaiʻi is criss-crossed by countless lava tubes. These underground passageways, also known as pyroducts, are created by lava flows themselves and are capable of transporting great quantities of lava long distances underneath the surface. When the supply of lava stops at the end of an eruption, or if it gets diverted elsewhere, it leaves behind an empty cave.

When a lava tube is active, lava travels along its floor at temperatures that exceed 2,000º F (1090º C). Winds of superheated fume may blast through the tunnel, yet the only sound may be the constant soft hiss of the relentless flow.

Once lava subsides, these subterranean corridors become home to unique ecosystems of troglobites, animals specifically adapted to live in this dark isolated world. Distinct species of crickets and spiders develop alongside special microbial colonies found nowhere else.

The Kazumura lava tube system, within the 500 year-old ‘Ailā‘au lava flow of Kīlauea, is more than 40 miles (65 km) long and is thought to be the longest lava tube cave in the world. Tubes may be up to several dozen feet wide.
 
 

How Do Lava Tubes Form?

 
Illustration of stage 2 of lava tube formation

1. Large rivers of lava flow in natural channels of their own creation. Fast central currents keep the core hot, while the slower moving edges cool and thicken as they are exposed to cooler surface air. As the surface cools, the top of the flow crusts over from the sides, like the way ice freezes on a river.

 
Illustration of stage 3 of lava tube formation

2. The crust eventually joins completely and insulates an interior flow. When fully insulated, the flow becomes superheated.

 
Illustration of stage 4 of lava tube formation

3. The superheated lava flow then begins “downcutting” through the ground or lava flows beneath it, in a process known as thermal erosion. This results in a deeper, narrower cross-section.

 
Illustration of stage 5 of lava tube formation

4. When the eruption stops, lava often drains from the tube and leaves behind the vacated conduit beneath the surface. Dripping formations may begin to develop as the lava level subsides. It may take about a year for the tube to cool down, but soon the new underground passage will be colonized by insects, spiders and their cave-dwelling kin.

 

Cultural Significance

For Native Hawaiians, these caves have also had great cultural importance. They could be used as shelter from both the elements and human enemies. Food stored in the cooler, more thermally stable lava tubes would last longer. Middens within lava tubes have contained opihi shells, stone tools and other evidence of daily life, testifying to their usage.

Because most of the island of Hawaiʻi has no standing lakes, ponds, or flowing streams, drinking water could be hard to find. Lava tubes were one valuable source. Dripping water from the ceilings, filtered down through porous lava rock, was often gathered in gourd bowls called ipu.

Lava tubes were also central in some ceremonies and burials. The carefully prepared and wrapped bones of imporant individuals would sometimes be placed in the caves. The national park protects these sacred burial caves and no tours or entry is permitted.

 
 

Last updated: April 28, 2020

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