Friday, October 28, 2016

Visiting Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes

27 October 2016

Wow!  This was one of the more incredible experiences of our travelling life.  Richard and I have been up a number of volcanoes:  Turrialba in Costa Rica, with steaming and smoking fumeroles; the slumbering Mount Maunganui in New Zealand, where we nearly fell off the mountain; the huge caldera of Mount Eden, also in New Zealand; as well as numerous huffing and puffing and smoking volcanoes in Central and South America.

But this was our first ever volcano spewing lava!  Live fiery hot burning red-orange-yellow molten rock lava!!!!!  WOW!

Kilauea Volcano (star #5 on the map at the end of the blog) is sort of a baby-sized volcano sitting or leaning on the side of Mauno Loa, the mother-sized volcano that comprising roughly 51% of the big island of Hawaii.  More on Mauno Loa later, though.  (And it’s pronounced kill-ah-WAY-ah.)

Kilauea at this point in time is mostly a huge caldera, or crater, with a smaller lava lake in the middle of it.  Yes, a lake of lava.  Not a lake of water in the crater, a small crater full of molten rock that glows at night.

This lava lake has its own name in Hawaiian:  Halema’uma’u.  And this crater is considered the home of Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes, because it is the most active volcano in Hawaii. 

We were lucky, because the lava was bubbling up like a fiery fountain, with two or three plumes of lava that are an estimated 20 to 30 feet in height.  (About 7 to 10 meters high.)  The US Geological Society has webcams and scientists monitoring the volcano, and their instruments can measure the side of the lava lake that is visible – right now, it’s about 40 feet (13 m).  The lava plumes are about half or almost three-quarters as high as the side – therefore about 20 to 30 feet tall.  Wow, that’s two or three storeys tall fountains of LAVA!!!!!!

It was as amazing and incredible and truly awe-inspiring as you might imagine.  Especially when we looked through the telescope at the viewpoint, because then we could see all the detail of these bubbling and exploding fountains of molten rock.  My photos barely begin to capture the power and might of this sight.  The viewpoints are roughly a mile away, and there’s a constant stream of steam mixed with sulphur dioxide gas that makes the view a little blurry.

But it was absolutely one of the most wonderful sights ever!  I literally was bouncing up and down and squealing at my first view of the lava.  As was Dad’s hat.  Live lava isn’t an everyday sight, even for a geologist.

Plus there are steam vents not only at one end of the lava lake, but scattered around the larger caldera, as well as along the road as one drives up the Crater Rim Road up to the various lookout points.  (Really, can you imagine having that as your address?  Crater Rim Road???)

So we wandered around for a few hours, at the various lookout points, marveling at this overwhelming sight.  Huge spurts of lava bubbling up into ever-changing sculpture.  We thought about staying until dark, because the entire lava lake glows – there’s only a very thin crust of cooling lava floating on top of the lake, and in the photos you can see that this crust moves with the fluid lava underneath.

But it was getting chilly, and rain was imminent.  So we left.  Turned out it was raining on our way home, so we’re glad we didn’t stay until after sunset.

Okay, some facts and figures to go with my multitude of photos:

Kilauea Crater is in the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park.  (website: 

If you have a national park card, bring it with you for the entrance fee.  We now have a senior pass, which is good for a lifetime.  (You can get one at a park, or online.)

The Volcanoes National Park encompasses 250,000 acres of volcanic landscape, including the crater at the top of Mauna Loa, little Kilauea, and a huge forested area that covers much of the lava flows from both volcanoes.

Kilauea itself is now only 4,091 feet high (1,227 m), having erupted and lost its peak.  The peak is now the huge caldera, with the smaller crater filled with lava forming the lake in the center.  Kilauea is considered the youngest but most active of the Hawaiian volcanoes, which is why it was named Kilauea, which means “spewing” or “much spreading.”  Since 1918, the only prolonged period of dormancy was an eighteen-year pause from 1934 to 1952.  Quite an active little volcano!

The summit caldera of Kilauea is shaped more like an oval than a perfect circle, roughly two miles in each direction (but 3.2 by 4 km) with walls up to 400 feet high (120 m).  The Halama’uma’u Crater is about 3000 ft in diameter (920 m), and 280 feet deep (85 m).  But this is constantly changing with the continuing lava flows.

The coastal region of the park was once home to a number of villages, and the ruins of various homes and temples can still be found.  There are also petroglyphs in the rocks.

A vent opened up in 1986, on one of the old lava flows on Kilauea’s south side, called the East Rift Zone, or Pu’u O’o in Hawaiian.  Lava has been flowing over the highway since 1986.  Nearly nine miles of road have been inundated by the lava, as well as various homes, and one of the park’s visitor centers. 

Another lava flow emerged and has been slowly flowing toward the sea.  The lava flow finally reached the coast, and is now dripping into the ocean, solidifying and forming new land!  Of course, there’s a possibility that this new igneous rock will become too heavy and break off, dropping into the ocean and capsizing any boats in the vicinity.  Aerial observation has found prominent cracks on this new point or delta, and there was a small collapse earlier this week.  (So no boat trips to see the dripping lava.)

Now, Kilauea sort of leans on Mauna Loa.  We haven’t seen this volcano, the top is always hidden in clouds, even on the clearest and sunniest days.  The peak seems to have its own micro-environment.

But, Mauna Loa is a really impressive volcano.  She hasn’t been very active recently, though about 30 years ago she and Kilauea were erupting at the same time.  Fortunately, these are shield volcanoes, something about the structure and the way the five volcanoes lean on each other.  It means they don’t erupt explosively anymore, or at least they don’t most of the time.  The lava bubbles out and flows down the sides, but there are rarely the violent eruptions with huge boulders flying miles away.  Although this has happened in the distant past, it hasn’t happened in recent history.

Mauna Loa is the largest of the five major volcanoes on the island of Hawai’I, though most of the volcano lies hidden below the ocean’s surface.  By volume, it is about 100 times larger than Mt. Rainier, an older volcanic peak of about the same elevation in Washington state.

Mauna Loa has an elevation of 13,677 feet above sea level, and more than 31,000 above the ocean floor.  With a volume of 10,000 cubic miles, Mauna Loa is the largest mountain on Earth!  (I know, it’s odd to hear the dimensions of a mountain measured from the ocean floor.  But with Mauna Loa making up 51% of the island of Hawai’i, and the rest of the island comprised of four other volcanoes, the underwater base of Mauna Loa really does factor into her size.)

According to the information at the park, Mauna Loa’s huge mass is being built by successive flows of lava.  The thickness of an individual lava flow averages 12 feet, or about 4 meters.  (Lava is magma that has broken through the earth’s crust.  When it’s still below the crust, the molten rock is referred to as magma.)

Mauna Loa and Kilauea are both shield volcanoes, with gently sloping sides resembling a warrior’s shield lying flat.

It has taken hundreds of centuries and countless eruptions for Mauna Loa to reach its present size.  During the last 100 years, the volcano has erupted more than 18 times.  The next eruption could occur any moment!

To end this blog, I want to quote from a few displays at the Jaggar Museum overlooking the Halama’uma’u Crater.  There were all kinds of scientific displays explaining how volcanoes are formed, different kinds of igneous rock, all the usual scientific stuff.  But I really liked the artwork by Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Kane, who included short versions of a few myths about volcano goddess Pele.  I love indigenous myths that explain natural phenomena, especially when such phenomena are anthropomorphized.  I also love the fact that volcanoes are seen as a woman – obviously a strong and powerful woman!

“Pele is short for Pelehonuamea, the goddess of the volcanoes.  Pelehonuamea has many names:  Ka Wahine ‘Ai Honua, the woman who devours the earth.  Kaluahine, the old woman of the pit.  Ka Wahine ‘Ai Lehua, the woman who devours the lehua blossoms.  These names describe the many volcanic forms Pele embodies, for native Hawaiians believe that she is all things volcanic – steam, lava, and volcanic eruptions.

“Her most common chant name is Pelehonuamea (Pele of the sacred earth).  Her home is the active crater Halema’uma’u within the Kilauea volcano on the Island of Hawai’i.  In Hawai’I Pele lives in Hawaiian hearts and minds as the supreme personification of volcanic majesty and power within a cosmos in which all natural forces are regarded as life forces, related by kinship to human life.”

Painting by Herb Kawainui Kane
  “Pele Searches for a Home”

“Pele, goddess of fire, passed southeast from island to island.  On each, she attempted to dig a home in which she could house her family.

“But at each location, as she dug her fire pits, she heard the voice of her sister, Na Maka o Kaha’I, goddess of the sea.

“At last she came to Hawaii, where she could dig deep without hitting water.”

Painting by Herb Kawainui Kane  

“In a dream Pele’s spirit wandered to Kauai, where she fell in love with the chief Lohiau.  She sent her sister Hi’iaka to bring the chief to her.

“Hi’iaka was loyal to Pele, but her sister had a jealous imagination.  Pele believed that she had been betrayed.  She destroyed Hi’iaka’s sacred grove and her friend Hopoe.

“Hi’iaka returned with Lohiau after a dangerous voyage.  She was overcome with grief at Pele’s destruction and embraced Lohiau.  The enraged Pele then consumed Lohiau with flaming lava. 

“Hi’iaka restored Lohiau to life and returned him to his island.”

Aren't they great stories?  

So some more photos of these mesmerizing fountains of lava.  Just because they're so cool.

And the map at the end.

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