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Volcano Watch — Hawaiians` view of Hawai`i Geologic History

June 27, 2002

Many of us look at a landscape and wonder how it got that way and others wonder how they can make money off it even if they don't use Arthur Anderson as an accountant. Unencumbered by modern profit margins and investors, Hawaiian stories reflect just their observations and thoughts about the origin of their island home.

Hawaiians had the idea that the Earth they lived on was the shell of a giant turtle or honu. The Hawaiian word for Earth is "honua", possibly reflecting that origin. While this might seem simplistic now, it incorporates their observations that the surface of our world is curved - an idea that Europeans reluctantly recognized only a few hundred years ago and that a few people still do not accept today.

Oceanic islands were sections of the ocean floor pulled up to the ocean's surface by Maui and his brothers, using the magic fishhook Manaiakalani. This is one of the many Maui stories that is common to Polynesians throughout the Pacific, not just to Hawai`i. Many different versions of the story exist, but the common elements are these: Maui goes fishing with his brothers in a canoe to a specific fishing ground. A large, famous, deep-living creature is hooked. All in the canoe pull together against the hooked creature for days. All in the canoe are ordered not to look back during the fight. Someone does look back, causing the hook to instantly be released.

Some versions of this Maui story are meant to explain why the islands are separate. However, guessing that the islands originate from the ocean floor is astute. The stories could have proclaimed that the islands fell from the sky or were towed from somewhere else. We're now pretty sure that the islands of Polynesia are volcanic in origin, built up layer upon layer from the ocean floor, nicely matching the Polynesian version.

The story of Pele's migration from her home in the South Pacific to Hawai`i is often cited as evidence that Hawaiians realized the island chain becomes younger from northwest to southeast. The assessment of age progression comes from the direction of her travels once she arrived in the island chain northwest of Kaua`i. She and her family searched for a suitable home on each of the islands, in turn moving generally southeast. She tested suitability with her digging stick, Paoa. Where she dug and encountered water, those areas were deemed poor choices.

The evidence of her test digs is the relatively small cones on the islands of Kaua`i, O`ahu, and Moloka`i. Those cones are now recognized as the result of very late volcanism - after the bulk of each island had been built and erosion had set in. They represent the last volcanism to occur on these older islands. It's easy to see why the Hawaiians associated these features with a volcano goddess. They still look volcanic, while the island of Kaua`i, which was probably two large volcanoes, no longer resembles even one. But the extensively eroded islands must have already been there before Pele arrived. We now know that the island chain does get younger to the southeast but cannot say that the Pele story demonstrates Hawaiians' awareness of that fact.

To continue with one version of the story, when Pele is checking out Haleakala Crater, her sister Namakaokaha`i, who has been searching for Pele in order to destroy her, sees the evidence of digging, attacks her, and destroys her human body. Namakaokaha`i celebrates only a short time before she sees smoke rising from Hawai`i and realizes that Pele still lives in spirit form. Pele has arrived at her new home, and the most logical path to this place was along the island chain. Hawaiians were clearly astute observers and accomplished storytellers, and it can be difficult to separate the story elements contributed by each.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity of Kilauea Volcano continued unabated at the Pu`u `O`o vent during the past week. The "Mother's Day" lava flow is spreading and inflating at the base of Paliuli with the terminus of the flow located 430 m (470 yd) from the Chain of Craters road. Visitors are allowed to hike out to a viewing area near the active flow.

The two flows emanating from the "rootless" shields are still active, but not advancing. The terminus of the mauka HALP flow has stagnated, and homes in Royal Gardens are no longer in imminent danger of being inundated by lava. However, activity continues in the upper reaches of the flow.

There were two minor earthquakes felt during the week ending on June 27. A resident of Ahualoa felt an earthquake at 6:18 a.m. on June 23. The magnitude-2.3 earthquake was located 10 km (6.0 mi) southeast of Waimea at a depth of 11.7 km (7.0 mi). A smaller magnitude-1.6 earthquake at 5:32 a.m. on June 26 was felt by a resident of Pahala. The earthquake was located 1.6 km (1.0 mi) northwest of Pahala at a very shallow depth.