In August 1959, the earth beneath Hawaii shook, and three months later Kīlaeua Iki, a smaller crater next to the expansive dent in the top of Hawaii most active volcano, exploded, sending fountains of lava 1,900 feet high. For a month, lava spurted out of the volcano and dripped down the mountain in red-hot rivers. Finally, in December, the eruptions stopped.
In January, as soon as they could, two botanists climbed into the devastated area and marked off small plots of ground, about 30 feet by 30 feet. Over the next four years, and again in 1966 and 1968, they returned to identify and count the plants that were growing there.
When wildfires burn hot through trees and grass, they still leave behind parts of plants and seeds hidden beneath the ground. But when lava flows through, the devastation can be complete. The botanists wanted to know what kind of plants would colonize the lava first and which type of lava they’d find most easy to settle on. But their main question was one with a long horizon: After a volcanic eruption, how long does it take a forest to develop?
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