HAWAI’I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK: Melting Pot of Legend and Science
Who can’t get excited by random explosions of red hot stuff from deep inside the earth?! Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was super impressive and fun to explore. Neither Elizabeth or I had ever seen an active volcano before, and the spewing steam and glowing red lava was mesmerizing. There was so much to do at the park – we wished we had a few more days to try out some of their many backcountry hikes. We hiked into the craters, walked past steam vents and sulfur banks, watched the red glow at night from the lava lake, drove through lava flows on Chain of Craters Road, explored a lava tube and attended a handful of ranger programs! One thing we found really intriguing as we learned all about the volcanoes and their history was how the park embraced and conveyed the juxtaposition of legend and science. And like anything we find fascinating along our trip, I want to share it with you.
According to to legend, a long time ago the Hawaiian volcano and fire goddess Pele was searching for a home. She first arrived on the island of Kauai where she tried digging a fire pit to make her home. unfortunately the ground there was not suitable so she migrated along the chain of Hawaiian islands. Oahu and Molokai were also unsuitable ground. Finally she arrived on the big island of Hawaii where she dug out a lovely fire pit to call her home. To this day she lives in the Halemaumau Crater at the summit of the Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii.
According to science, Kilauea is the only currently active volcano in Hawaii. There are 8 main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. The islands are all formed by volcanic activity originating from a single hot spot where magma from the core oozes through a whole in the Earth’s crust. Kauai and Niihau, at 5 million years, are the oldest. Hawaii at 450,000 years, is the youngest. For as long as we know, the Pacific Plate (the largest tectonic plate in the world) has been moving to the northwest at a speed of 2.2-4 inches per year (roughly the rate your fingernails grow). So Kauai passed over the hotspot a long time ago and the volcano is dead and the island is slowly sinking/eroding back into the ocean. Whereas the southeastern section of the Big Island is still passing over the hotspot. This is why the southeastern volcano of Kilauea is the most active and the the other four volcanoes that make up the island to the north and west are slowly fading away. There’s even a younger underwater volcano to the southeast of the island that is growing rapidly and will one day form its own island before mergin with Hawaii. But that’s not for another couple hundred thousand years, so don’t hold your breath!
According to one legend, Pele sent her sister to Maui to find the god of agriculture Kamapua’a and bring him back to Hawaii to be her husband. When the pair eventually made it back, Pele was suspicious that they had fallen in love and her sister had stolen Kamapua’a from her, which was not true. Famous for her fiery temper, she flew into a rage and erupted from Kilauea. She chased the pair off to the wetter, lush northern side of the island with her explosions and lava and she kept the drier, barren southeastern side for herself. Every now and then Pele still erupts from her home in anger.
According to science, volcanic eruptions are still unpredictable. However, they can be signaled by earthquakes and swelling of the earth of the volcano. Over the last 1,100 years Kilauea has covered over 90% of its surface with fresh lava flows. Since 1918, Kilauea’s only period of inactivity was the 18 years between 1934 and 1952. The most recent and longest eruption was in 1983. In 2014 the volcano made the news when its lava flow got within feet of burying the town of Pahoa.
According to legend, Pele’s curse will befall anyone who removes volcanic rock or lava from Hawaii and they will have bad luck forever. Every year, the park gets pieces of rock mailed to them by people who took it from the park and claim it has given them bad luck. There are many forms of lava, but my two favorite are called Pele’s hair and Pele’s tears. Pele’s hair is thin strands of basaltic glass made naturally from molten lava as it flys or flows rapidly.It looks like golden yellow human hair and is extremely light and gets blow far away by the wind during eruptions. Pele’s tears are small drops of molten lava that solidify into black volcanic glass balls. A hollow Pele’s tear the size of a pea was found by a volcanologist in December and it is the only one of its kind ever known.
According to science, when magma emerges from underground it is now considered lava. Molten lava can cool into several shapes, textures and colors. The color of the hardened lava depends on the temperature of the lava and the chemical impurities. The two main types of lava are pahoehoe (smooth, ropey, flowing lava) and a’a (jagged, porous, broken into many rocks). We saw both types all across the park. A third type is called pillow lava and forms only underwater when the intense ocean pressure and rapid cooling forms pillow shapes. With all the lava Kilauea continues to throw out, Hawaii is still growing in size as the lava flows into the sea and hardens. From 1983-2002 the island added 543 acres!
If you are fascinated by the power of Mother Earth like I am, volcanoes are an awesome subject to dive into. I can’t say I didn’t fantasize about how cool it would be to be a volcanologist studying Kileaua and have the chance to examine the off-limits active areas of the lava lake and lava flows up close. Then I saw the display of a shredded and charred uniform in the park museum. The story was about a guy who was taking the temperature of molten lava during an eruption in the ’90s. He walked up to what he thought was the edge of the solid lava to stick in his thermometer. As he looked down he saw the thin black crust part and his legs get swallowed by molten lava. Somehow he survived the experience and could run again after a few months of intensive therapy. But the volcanologist life didn’t seem so glamorous after that. I think a visit is good for now!
Check out the incredible video of our park visit and the extent of the lava we saw. And if this post was not dramatic enough for you, check out the wonderfully morbid article I just found called “10 Bizarre Ways a Volcano Can Kill You!“