In 2018, just a month apart, two of the most active volcanoes in the Americas violently erupted. First, in early May, was Kilauea, a volcano on the Hawaiian archipelago’s largest island. The activity capped off decades of near-continuous eruption by splitting open the surrounding area with giant fissures that that then spewed lava across the land and into the ocean. Around 2,000 residents were displaced, and the geography of the island itself changed. On June 3, Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego experienced an unrelated deadly explosion whose massive scale took both volcanologists and locals by surprise. After that eruption, hundreds of people were reported dead or missing, 12,800 had been evacuated, and almost 17,000 small-scale farmers said the ash had hurt their crops.
A new Smithsonian Channel documentary, premiering September 8, recounts the story of the two natural disasters through in-the-moment footage that captures the joint awe and terror of the eruptions. Volcanoes: Dual Destruction also interviews eyewitnesses whose families or properties were impacted by the eruptions as well as volcanologists like Ed Venzke, who works with the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Project to document such seismic activity over the past 10,000 years.
While the 2018 volcanic events were dramatic and devastating, Venzke says that scientists who study volcanoes wouldn’t consider them individual eruptions but “simply part of long-term activity.” “Neither of these events was unusual for these volcanoes,” he wrote in an email, pointing out that 90 percent of Kilauea’s surface consists of lava flows less than 1,100 years old. But volcanologists operate on a long time scale; Kilauea’s 2018 activity, for instance, included the largest summit explosions since 1924, and Fuego saw its “largest and deadliest explosive activity in recent history” in 2018, according to the Venzke’s team. While the two major eruptive events took place just a month apart, Venzke is quick to clarify that they’re not linked—Kilauea’s activity did not lead to Fuego’s explosion.
Chronologically, however, Kilauea’s recent activity did precede Fuego’s. The Hawaiian shield volcano has been erupting since 1983, but towards the beginning of May 2018, the island experienced a succession of earthquakes, and the lava lakes in the volcano’s two craters dropped, a sign that magma was carving subterranean channels beneath the island. The first fissure appeared on May 3, and by mid-May, almost two dozen fissures had opened, some with lava “fountains” pouring from them. On May 20, the lava reached the Pacific Ocean, generating laze (a combination of glass, hydrochloric acid and steam) as the molten rock was cooled by the seawater. While there was no loss of life, and seismicity helped volcanologists identify potential fissure formation areas, 700 homes were destroyed, according to the New York Times. By the time the eruption officially ended, on September 5, Kilauea had issued enough lava to fill 320,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Guatemala’s Fuego sits on the “Ring of Fire,” which traces several volcano-laden tectonic subduction zones. Its most recent eruptive cycle began in 2002, but this explosion proved especially dangerous, says Venzke, due to the cloud of hot ash—called pyroclastic flow—that flowed down the mountain and into the town below. A few days later, rainstorms caused lahars, or ashen mudslides, which damaged the areas further. All told, an August report from the International Red Cross counted 165 fatalities and 260 more people missing, and the 150 square-kilometer coating of ash was visible from space.
Photographer Demian Barrios, who has been documenting Hawai‘i’s lava for two decades, heard about the first fissure opening in the residential Leilani Estates area while on a photography outing with his then four-year-old son. Using a drone to get aerial footage that is now in the documentary, father and son saw the lava rising from the earth. Barrios continued to take videos of the lava flows—plowing across a road, or exploding geyser-like—solo, carrying four cameras and various lenses, the drone, batteries, tripods, a respirator and rain gear along with food, water and a toy truck to remind him of his family. Sometimes, he’d sleep in the jungle to catch the lava as it collided with the ocean.
Despite the danger, the 2018 lava flow was “surely one of the most amazing, most destructive and impressive things I’ve seen in my entire life,” Barrios says in Volcanoes: Dual Destruction. Via email, he told Smithsonian magazine, “I hope the footage can be a tool to learn, and to demonstrate the power of our planet. A reminder nothing is permanent.”
Volcanoes: Dual Destruction premieres Sunday, September 8, at 9 p.m. ET.