Final Royal Gardens home destroyed in Hawaii

This photo might as well be the surface of Venus… if it weren’t for the parallel lines cutting across, anyway (it would be quite a discovery if it was). No, this is an aerial photo of the Royal Gardens subdivision on the big island of Hawaii. The photo was taken in 1990. The story of Royal Gardens is both fascinating and tragic. Construction began at Royal Gardens in the late 1970s. 1500 lots were supposedly sold. Just a few years later, however, the eruption at the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent began. That eruption has continued almost non-stop for 29 years now.

During that time, almost all of the 75 houses actually built in Royal Gardens have been overrun by lava. This figure from the USGS shows the extent of various lava flow events, as well as the outline of the Royal Gardens subdivision.

Miraculously, year after year, one house was spared from the incessant flows. The distinctive red-roofed house belonging to Jack Thompson evaded destruction. The view from the house was surreal. Forested land surrounded by kilometers of stark black lava, all with an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. Lava came within just 300 feet of the house last December. Well, the house’s luck finally ran out this weekend. It was destroyed by a characteristically slow moving basaltic lava flow.

I went on a helicopter ride with my family back in 2005 to get a look at the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent and surrounding area. This was a few years before I started taking geology classes, but the entire experience still fascinated me. The vent was of course shrouded in dense clouds (not surprising), but we got an excellent look at the lava entering the sea.

I remember being surprised at two things. First, I was amazed that lava could flow the 4 or 5 miles from Puʻu ʻŌʻō without solidifying. It was impossible to follow a line of lava all the way back to the vent, so as far as I could tell it might as well had been erupting just meters from the sea (lava can flow underground inside lava tubes). The other thing that struck me was the lush green island of what remained of Royal Gardens. It seemed against all odds that anything should survive the constant eruptions. Even more incredible was seeing this one red house among the green trees… Jack Thompson’s house. All the other remaining buildings I remember looking a lot like this one I managed to snap a picture of:

Photographer Leigh Hilbert was with Jack Thompson this weekend and posted some amazing footage.

In the video, you can see how reluctant Jack is to evacuate his house. After all, the house has survived dozens of scares. He holds out hope until the lava starts creeping into his backyard (literally). You can see more photos from Leigh at his website here. This one photo in particular helped me understand why Jack was so adamant about staying in his isolated paradise… what a view!

This is another reminder of how, despite how resilient or stubborn humans can be, nature is a relentless force. Unfortunately nature doesn’t always creep along as lazily as on Hawaii. Take this or this for example. Hopefully not this, but only a fool would deny the eventuality of a disaster given enough time.