Originally published May 2018.

In 2018 Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, put on a big show with activity at Kilauea volcano on Hawaii. Kilauea’s Puu Oo crater had been active since 1983, making it the world’s longest continuously erupting volcano. In quick succession in the first week of May 2018, the lake of lava drained from the top of Kilauea volcano and new fissures opened to the east, emitting dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide gas. Then, effusive fountains of lava spewed up to 330 feet high.

“Volcanoes give us warning when they’re about to do something,” [Tari] Mattox said. The emptying of the Puu Oo crater’s lava lake, the surge in seismic activity along the East Rift Zone, and weeks of uplift around the crater all signaled that something was bubbling under the surface. [Source]

Residents nearby were urged to evacuate. Increased earthquakes indicated movement of molten rock towards the surface. A large quake measuring magnitude 6.9 occurred on May 4 caused landslides and small tsunamis. The magma had already reached the surface of the East Rift Zone on May 3 in what was the neighborhood called Leilani Estates. Over two dozen homes have been destroyed so far and lava flows are rendering the area increasingly inaccessible. Officials at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have closed the park to visitors. Visiting the eruption area is highly discouraged as crews work to ensure public safety. Currently, the gas emissions are the main problem, as the fumes prevent crews from entering areas and may inhibit rescue attempts.

From Hawaii News Now:

Sam Knox, also of Leilani Estates, said all he can do as he waits to hear if his home will survive is appeal to a higher power.
“If there’s a God out there maybe he can help us out,” he said, adding that seeing the lava soaring into the sky into his own neighborhood was surreal. “It was incredible. It was fuming. It was roaring. It was thundering. Rocks were flying out of the ground,” he said.

From the USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory:

A fissure about 150 m (492 ft) long erupted mostly spatter and intermittent bubble bursts for about 2 hours. Lava did not travel more than a few m (yards) from the fissure. Hawaii County Civil Defense is coordinating needed response including evacuation of a portion of the Leilani subdivision. USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory deployed geologists to the eruption site overnight, and other scientists are monitoring various data streams telemetered to the observatory 24/7.

The lava eruptions may continue for days or weeks, perhaps longer, as new basalt rock obliterates the old landscape, and the island grows. Even though some fissures may cease emission of lava, other new fissures can open. Some residents believe it was Pele’s doing, reclaiming her land.

“The way I kind of look at it is, the land doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to Pele,” [Jordan] Sonner said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess. “We get to live on it while we can, and if she wants it back, she’ll take it. I have good insurance.”[Source]

The legend of Pele is relatively well known even outside of Hawaii. Her story, told before we had any understanding of geology, traces the age of the islands from north (Kure Atoll) to south (Hawaii island) as the earth’s plates move over the hot spot that creates vulcanism in this famous tropical paradise. The stories about Pele and her family are rich –  I cannot adequately reproduce their depth and variety here. In short, Pele was the daughter of the gods but was mortal. She fought with her sister, Namakaokaha‘i who represents the ocean, where Pele is the land. When the two sisters battled, it created explosions and Pele was torn apart, just like when molten rock meets water. Upon her death, Pele became a god and her spirit eventually took up residence on Hawaii island, at the summit of Kilauea, Halemaʻumaʻu crater.

Pele is said to have become impatient at times with her brothers and sisters. Then she would destroy their pleasure resorts in the valleys. She would send a flood of lava in her anger and burn everything up. Earthquakes came when Pele stamped the floor of the fire-pit in anger. Flames thrusting themselves through cracks in a breaking lava crust were the fire spears of Pele’s household of au-makuas or ghost-gods. [Source]

There are several more modern legends of Pele. One is that she disapproves of tourists removing parts of the island. Taking pieces of lava rock from the island is discouraged as bad luck will follow you home. Many people who disregard the tale eventually come to believe they have been cursed by their rashness and mail back the rocks to the island.

Another local legend is that Pele appears in human form as a young beautiful woman or an elderly lady in need of assistance. Often, she is accompanied by a dog (solid white or black). If you attempt to help her, you will be rewarded. If you ignore her or are unkind, she will seek revenge. Lately, many people may be wondering who disrespected Pele to spark the current evidence of her anger.

Hawaii island is the only active surface volcanic area in the state. Loihi is a seamount that is growing but will remain submerged off the coast of the island for thousands of years.

We should be grateful to the scientists who risk their lives measuring the pulse of Kilauea and several other volcanoes to warn the rest of us of dangerous hazards.

Pele’s Hair and Tears

As molten rock flies through the air, it forms into substances known as Pele’s hair and tears.

Pele’s hair – Natural History Museum, London

So-called Pele’s hair, named after the Goddess of Fire who inhabits Kilauea volcano, is vitrified lava, or threads of glass, that looks very much like golden hair. Millimeters in thickness but sometimes very long, they are lightweight and carried by the wind. Strands of the “hair” blown in the wind collect in clumps on the ground or in vegetation. The fine threads are formed when bubbles of lava burst, blown hot into the wind to stretch and cool. The substance can be found in relation to lava fountains in Hawaii and in Iceland where it’s also called Nornahár meaning Witch’s Hair.

Pele’s hair collects on an antenna (Wikimedia Commons)
2012, Hawaii island. Large swaths of hair collect along a road.

Like asbestos and fiberglass (which is what this, essentially, is), these fibers are also hazardous if inhaled and irritating if rubbed into eyes or skin.

The current eruption of Kilauea is producing “hair”. From HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY STATUS REPORT
U.S. Geological Survey. Tuesday, May 29, 2018, 7:45 AM HST:

Pele’s hair and other lightweight volcanic glass from high fountaining of Fissure 8 are being transported downwind and falling to the west of the fissure. On Monday night, there were reports of Pele’s hair falling in Pāhoa. Residents are urged to minimize exposure to these volcanic particles, which can cause skin and eye irritation similar to volcanic ash.

Drops of molten lava in a spray instantly cool to form tapered black drops of glass called achneliths or Pele’s tears. The “tear” may often be found at the end of a “hair” as the tail is spun from the trail of liquid in motion. Glass has no crystal structure as it solidifies too quickly. Because of the quick freeze, geologists can use the hair and tears to tell something about the magma from the eruption. The shape of the tears can provide an indication of the velocity of the eruption.

As the blobs of lava get bigger, the tears become “bombs” which can damage structures and even cause injury and death as the outside cools but the core remains molten.

“Tears” or tiny cooled drops of volcanic glass.

1 thought on “Wrath of Pele

  1. @sharona Thank you for this. As a child I was warned to fear the wrath of Madame Pele, to always assist any elderly woman who asked, and to respect all the gods of the natural world, of the earth, the oceans, and the winds. A good legacy, I think. Mahalo.

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