High Chief Keli`ikuku's pride devastated by unusually long Kīlauea eruption

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In the mid-19th century, Kona chief Kanuha told French explorer Jules Remy the story of Keli`ikuku, an ancient high chief of Puna.

High Chief Keli`ikuku's pride devastated by unusually long Kīlauea ...

A map of the `Aila`au flows extending from Kīlauea summit to the coast with Hawaiian Paradise Park subdivision.

(Public domain.)

According to the tale, Keli`ikuku traveled to O`ahu where he met a Pele prophet from Kaua`i by the name of Kaneakalau who asked the chief about his homeland. Chief Keli`ikuku boasted that his district was the best. "My country is charming. Everything is found there in abundance. Everywhere are sandy plains which produce marvelously."

The prophet Kaneakalau responded with the ancient equivalent of "Bummer, dude!" He went on to reveal that Puna had become "abominable." "Pelehonuamea has made of it a heap of ruins. . . Your country is no longer habitable."

Shocked by this, chief Keli`ikuku dismissed the prophecy and angrily threatened to kill the prophet if he was found to have lied.

But he couldn't forget the prophet's words and soon set sail for his home district to see for himself whether Kaneakalau had told the truth. He landed in Hamakua and, from Hilo, could see that his district was devastated by lava flows. With all lost, Keli`ikuku killed himself.

Chief Kanuha estimated that this event probably took place in the 1600s, based on the fact that grandparents of Hawaiians living at the time had witnessed the destruction. History or myth? As Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story.

In the last decade, geologic studies and detailed mapping of the Puna district support this story but place it at a different time in the past. A single, long-lived eruption covering most of the Puna district between Pahoa and Kea`au extends from Kīlauea Iki and Volcano village to Paradise Park. This large flow field was produced during an eruption that lasted at least 50 years and ended around A.D. 1470, more than a century earlier than Chief Kanuha's estimate.

Keli`ikuku's boast about the bounty in his Puna district prior to the most recent eruption may also be supported by geologic evidence. Beneath and to the north of the A.D. 1470 flow field lie volcanic soils that could have supported crops. Most recently, sugar cane did well in the kipukas and adjacent lands not covered by the A.D. 1470 lava flows. The high chief had reason to be proud.

Tree molds are found in the most recent lava flows along the coast suggesting a coconut- and hala-lined shoreline very different than it is today. The underlying older flows have petroglyphs and other evidence of Hawaiian stone workings, but none can be found on the A.D. 1470 flows. This part of the Puna district must have been magnificent before being overrun.

The lava flows that covered this paradise are called the `Aila`au flows, after the Hawaiian volcano god who retreated into oblivion at Pele's coming. The name was bestowed upon these flows by the geologist who first recognized their significance. It might have been more appropriate to have called these flows the Keli`ikuku flows to commemorate the chief who was so proud of his district and, subsequently, devastated at its destruction.

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Volcano Activity Update

This past week, activity levels at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano have remained elevated above background levels. Earthquakes continue to be concentrated in the upper southwest and east rift zones. The summit caldera has been expanding, indicating inflation, since the early 2007.

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. On clear nights, glow can be seen reflected in the gas plume above vents on the eastern half of the crater floor. The lava that is erupted onto the surface, however, comes from the PKK vent on the southwest flank of Pu`u `O`o and flows directly into the PKK tube.

A breakout from an old skylight about 450 meters below the head of the PKK tube has been sending lava downslope for the last several weeks. This new flow, called the Petunia flow, has reached more than 2 km out onto the upper flow field, but is still a long way from the top of the pali. The Petunia flow is traveling along the east margin of the Campout flow, which, in turn, branches off from the PKK tube about 1 km south of Pu`u `O`o. The original PKK lava tube below this point has been abandoned.

The Campout tube continues to carry most of the erupted lava downslope, where it is feeding breakouts scattered across the coastal plain from near the base of the Royal Gardens subdivision to the sole ocean entry at Poupou. The Poupou entry, which is located within Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, has a couple of closely spaced entry points and is building a small lava delta. As the tube carrying lava to the ocean entry becomes better established, the number of surface breakouts inland from the entry may continue to decline.

Access to the sea cliff at the ocean entry is closed, due to significant hazards. The surrounding area within Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, however, is open. If you visit the eruption site, check with the rangers for current updates, and remember to carry lots of water and wear good shoes when venturing out onto the flow field.

Two earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island were reported felt within the past week. A magnitude-3.6 earthquake occurred at 1:24 a.m. H.s.t. on Saturday, June 2, and was located 14 km (8 miles) southeast of Ho`okena at a depth of 13 km (8 mile). A magnitude-3.8 earthquake occurred at 1:51 a.m. on Monday, June 4, and was located 2 km (1 miles) northeast of Pahala at a depth of 11 km (7 miles). Mauna Loa is not erupting. Two earthquakes were located beneath the summit. Extension between locations spanning the summit, indicating inflation, continues at steady, slow rates.