Hawaii’s Fountains of Fire
THERE is a red glow in the night sky, an acrid smell in the air, and one’s eyes smart from the pollution in the atmosphere. What is happening? Why are people preparing for possible evacuation from their homes? Is it a forest fire? No, the disturbance is caused by the volcano, active again and once more putting on a spectacular, fiery show.
Eruptions of the volcanoes on the “Big Island” of Hawaii are a relatively common occurrence. Kilauea volcano, for example, has had 48 phases of activity since it began erupting on January 3, 1983. Usually these phases last 24 hours or less and consist of lava fountains that are from several hundred to about a thousand feet high, with some lava flows extending a few miles from the vent area.*
A Spectacular Eruption
The eruption in the spring of 1984, however, was different. This time, Mauna Loa—the world’s largest active volcano, measuring 33,000 feet from ocean floor to peak—came to life. Quiet since a brief one-day eruption in July 1975, Mauna Loa was to be active 22 days during March and April. It spewed forth an average of more than 1.3 million cubic yards of lava per hour for much of that time.* That is enough volcanic material hurled out in just one hour to lay a four-inch-thick, four-foot-wide sidewalk all the way from Honolulu to New York, a distance of 4,873 miles!*
The large volume of lava resulted in several major flows. Some of them headed in the direction of Hilo, the largest city on the island, with a population of over 35,000. Authorities kept a sharp eye on conditions, and anxiety reached a peak when a mainstream of lava flowed to within four miles of the city. But as matters turned out, there was no serious threat to life or property despite all the lava produced.
While Mauna Loa was erupting, Kilauea also briefly roared back to life, with lava fountaining to heights of almost 700 feet. This created the unusual situation of two active volcanoes erupting simultaneously on the island—the first time since 1868 that this had happened.
As might be expected, such awesome displays of nature evoke traditional and sometimes superstitious responses from individuals. Hawaiian lore has it that the volcano is the home of the fire goddess Pele and that when the volcano is threatening life or property, she is expressing her anger. At such times, ancient Hawaiians offered food and liquor as sacrifices to appease Pele.
Some modern-day Hawaiians still hold to some of these traditions. During the 1984 eruption of Mauna Loa, at least one kahuna, or Hawaiian religious leader, was reported to have ascended the mountain to the vent area to make offerings of red fish and taro roots to the fire goddess, Madame Pele.
Hawaiian legend also surfaced during the time of the dual eruptions of Mauna Loa and Kilauea. During the night, many individuals, including National Park Service personnel, reported seeing a white streak in the sky, accompanied by a large bright flash. According to Hawaiian lore, this was explained as Pele traveling in her fireball, or popoahi, form from one volcano to the other in order to assert her domain.
Another phenomenon also occurred during the volcanic activity. Snow, caused by natural conditions over Mauna Loa, momentarily fell on the mountain during its fountaining of lava. While scientists were explaining how the smoke and ash cast into the atmosphere could help cause the snow, those familiar with Hawaiian legend had another explanation.
According to lore, the snow falling on the volcano would be evidence of the two goddesses—Pele and her sister Lilinoe, the snow goddess—fighting over their domain, Mauna Loa. The fact that the snow melted as soon as it touched the lava would mean that Pele had won the fight in the struggle for domination.
Recent Volcanic Activity
Mauna Loa has been quiet since 1984, but Kilauea, which has had 48 periodic eruptions since January 1983, changed to a continuous outpouring of lava on July 18, 1986. A daily flow of over half a million cubic yards of molten rock reached the sea last November. The eight-mile-long river of lava, which severed the Kalapana Highway, added new land to the coastline but had destroyed 26 homes by December, with another 80 still being threatened.
While Hawaii’s volcanoes have generally been relatively harmless, there has been considerable property damage recently. There is little danger to life, as the volcanoes and their lava flows are in isolated areas. If a lava flow starts to approach an inhabited area, authorities have been able to give sufficient advance warning to allow for a safe and orderly evacuation.
Volcanoes have played a major role in preparing the earth for human habitation, and they have done much to enrich the soil and moderate the climates. The awesome spectacle of Hawaii’s fountains of fire can be viewed without superstitious fear. Rather, we are moved to give glory to Jehovah, the God of all creation.
1 ft = 0.3 m; 1 mi = 1.6 km.
1 cu yd = 0.76 cu m.
1 in. = 2.5 cm.
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National Park Service photos
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National Park Service photo