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Earth Notes: Kipukas

NASA Earth Observatory

Volcanic eruptions are among nature’s most dramatic events. But sometimes their impact can vary a lot even over a small area.

When hot liquid lava pours from a volcano, it moves with the landscape, following drainages and covering most obstacles. But it can also leave islands of untouched land. Native Hawaiians knew such places well—and named them kipukas.

In the Southwest, the best place to see kipukas is at El Malpais National Monument in west-central New Mexico. Here lava has erupted at intervals over many tens of thousands of years.

Some of the black, baked flows that cover much of the park are very recent, forming only a few thousand years ago. The kipuka land is much older, consisting of more ancient lava, or even of sandstone created long before volcanoes starting shaping the landscape here.

Geologists are fascinated by kipukas, and so are ecologists. That’s because kipuka land can form tiny “lost worlds” isolated from their immediate surroundings. At El Malpais, several kipukas were never subjected to historic logging or grazing because they’re too hard to reach across the rugged lava terrain.

The largest kipuka at El Malpais is Hole-in-the-Wall at more than ten square miles. It supports ponderosa pine forest and grassland that shows what much of the surrounding landscape once looked like. It’s a favorite with hikers—and as a designated wilderness area is also an island outside the flow of our busy lives.

Peter Friederici is a writer whose articles, essays, and books focus primarily on connections between humans and their natural surroundings. His most recent book is Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope (MIT Press, 2022). He also teaches classes in science communication and sustainable communities at Northern Arizona University.

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