UH Hilo geology professor explains recent collapse of older sea cliff

Professor of Geology Steve Lundblad says lava cliff faces are prone to natural ocean erosion, and collapses can happen over time as the islands shrink.

By Susan Enright

A fisherman tumbled 30 feet into the ocean when a portion of the rocky cliff underneath him collapsed. The incident happened off Paradise Drive in Puna, Hawai’i Island, in the early morning hours of Nov. 22. The man was transported to the hospital in critical condition with head and neck injuries.

Steve Lundblad
Steve Lundblad

To better understand why the collapse happened, reporters contacted Steve Lundbald, professor of geology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Lundblad said cliff faces are prone to natural ocean erosion, and [collapses happen] over time as the islands shrink.

“This is part of that normal process,” Lundbland added. “It’s just, I think, an unfortunate event to be kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have the collapse occur while you’re standing there.”

[,,,] geologists said there may or may not be cracks to warn of an impending collapse but similar cracks occur naturally on these types of molten rocks.

“They are just going to happen whenever whatever is holding the rocks together in that place fails, and so you’re going to get that failure all in one in one motion,” Lundbland continued.

He said it’s too hard to know if another collapse will occur at Paradise Cliffs but officials say people should be vigilant whenever they’re near shoreline edges and always go with someone in case of an emergency.

Read full story at KHON.

Prof. Lundblad is an expert on the lava flows and related geological data generated on Hawai‘i Island.

In 2018, during the eruption at Kīlauea’s lower east rift zone that destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of more than a thousand residents, Prof. Lundblad led a team to assist in the response. The group provided precise leveling of the ground around the geothermal power plant to detect whether, and how much, the surface was rising due to the flow of magma beneath the surface. The monitoring was relied on in case officials needed to be alerted about the facility possibly being compromised. Findings derived from monitoring the plant and other areas related to that eruption were published 2019.

Recently, Lundblad and his students have been studying the fault system following Kīlauea’s 2018 eruption and, in an ongoing study, measuring other fault data in the spring and fall of 2021.

In 2018, Lundblad received the UH Board of Regents Award for Excellence in Teaching.

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.