Goddess of Fire

Going With the Flow

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By Anthony Denicola

On New Year’s Eve 1974, a spectacular show lit up the Big Island of Hawaii—a production, to hear locals tell it, of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. It began a month earlier with earthquakes that built in frequency and seismic intensity until 2:56 on the morning of Dec. 31, when lava fountains were first seen on the southwest side of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. And then the fireworks: Red hot lava that gushed out of the earth for eight hours and covered nearly five square miles of the Ka’u desert.

John P. Lockwood, a volcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory, was one of two scientists on the scene that night, and in his official report he described the fiery spectacle with a flourish of awe. “The sequence of fissure openings and the appearance of lava were fascinating to observe in the eerie, flickering, predawn red light given off by the dancing lava fountains,” Lockwood observed. “In the area of opening cracks, numerous small earthquakes caused a near-constant rocking sensation and a continuous low-frequency tremor could be felt by on-site observers, usually accompanied by the sharp cracking sounds of breaking rocks.”

Keoni Kaholoaa, a ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park whose last name actually means “flow of jagged rock,” was just six years old when the 1974 eruption happened but he recalls the days that followed as an inferno. “I just remember seeing fire all over the place,” he said. “Red, fire, smoke. . . hot.”

Today there is neither smoke nor fire and the Ka’u desert is still and grey. The cracks Lockwood heard 41 years ago can now be seen stretched out like thousands of gnarled fingers reaching across the barren landscape. Besides the scurrying of bugs and a few lonely bushes, the expanse of pahoehoe and a’a lava—the two types of lava found in Hawaii—is largely devoid of life. That may not sound like an ideal vacation spot but for NASA scientists the Ka’u desert represents the best place to study not only the volcanoes of this planet but the surfaces of other planets.

What do lava fields on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean have in common with the surfaces of other planetary bodies? The answer is one word: Basalt. Research has shown that the surfaces of the Moon, Mars and many near- Earth asteroids are largely covered in basaltic rock, making them chemically analogous to the basaltic lava of Kilauea. Through this “basalt window,” scientists hope to gain a better understanding of other planetary surfaces to plan exploratory missions in the future.

Kilauea is something of a paradox—the smallest volcano on Hawaii but the most active on Earth. A decade after the eruption of 1974, a series of smaller but unremitting lava flows began and continues to this day. In fact, Kiluaea started spewing lava, rocks and gasses only weeks before the RIS4E researchers arrived there. It left a caldera–a cauldron of lava–whose orange glow is providing a nightly show from the public viewing area at Hawaii Volcano Observatory three-quarters of a mile away.

The eight principal Hawaiian Islands are made up of 15 different volcanoes, four of them active. But those are only the youngest in a chain of more than 129 volcanoes that stretches 3,600 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Every one of them formed over the course of thousands of years from the same volcanic hot spot and magma chamber three miles beneath Hawaii’s surface.

A volcanic hot spot is an opening in Earth’s crust that allows magma to escape the inner mantle. In the formation of the Hawaiian Islands, each eruption added a new layer of rock as magma was released and cooled. This process repeated itself millions of times as volcanoes broke the surface of the water and eventually built themselves up to the varying heights seen today at Kilauea (4,000 feet), Mauna Loa (13,600 feet) and Mauna Kea (13,800 feet).

The reason only four of Hawaii’s 129 volcanoes are active is that the entire island chain is moving at a pace of about four inches a year. So as one volcano is born, another dies as it moves away from the hot spot. As a result, 123 of Hawaii’s volcanoes are classified as extinct, many of them beneath the waves, having been ground down by erosion. The process can be seen in the difference in size between the oldest and youngest of the Hawaiian islands. Kauai is 5.5 million years old, geologists estimate, and has an area of 562 square miles. The Big Island of Hawaii is believed to be a youthful 700,000 years old—about 15 percent the age of Kauai—but is nearly eight times larger at 4,028 square miles.

Unlike Kauai, which will only get smaller as it moves further away from the hotspot, the Big Island is going to get bigger, at least for a few more hundred thousand years.

Though Kilauea is the smallest volcano on the island, because it sits directly over the center of the hotspot it’s been steadily erupting for 32 years, adding new lava—and land—to the Big Island. That’s what makes it one of the most studied volcanoes in the world.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, recently installed some of the most sophisticated and sensitive instruments available for monitoring deep beneath the surface of a volcano. According to the HVO, the state-of-the-art instrumentation will radio seismic data in real time and make possible the early detection and tracking of events occurring within Mauna Loa and Kilauea with unprecedented clarity.

While Kilauea may represent a scientific boon for geologists and volcanologists, to those living in its shadow, the fiery mountain represents something much more. “We [natives] embrace it as part of our culture; God, Pele, fire… it’s all part of it,” said Kaholoaa, the park ranger. “For foreigners it’s different, they’re not used to it.”

Last fall, residents of Pahoa, a small town on the southeast side of the island, were bracing for the prospect of their town being cut in half, or cut off from the rest of the island by the slow advance of Kiluaea’s lava. The Pahoa recycling station came within feet of feeling Pele’s burn. Ernest Ayhee, a native of Pahoa and security guard at the station who was evacuated shortly before the lava arrived, echoed relaxed Hawaiian attitudes toward the goddess of fire.

“The only thing that was hard to deal with was the smoke because it carried, but other than that it’s normal for us,” said Ayhee. “I thought it was nice of her not to take the whole fence down and to just come through the holes. It was pretty cool looking, man.”

Others were not so lucky as the recycling center. Houses and farmland all burned during the lava flow, though the highway was spared when the flow stopped advancing in Pahoa and veered west. Even though Pahoa is no longer in imminent danger and Hawaiians may take a more relaxed tone when it comes to Pele and her marauding rivers of flame, Ranger Kaholoa’a insists on being practical.

“If the lava comes and consumes your house it is for a reason,” he said. “And it is usually to cleanse the land, for whatever reason. But with that said, you still need insurance.”