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Volcano Watch — Hawaiian oral tradition describes formation of Kīlauea's caldera

September 14, 2006

Sometimes you rediscover the wheel.

Hawaiian oral tradition describes formation of Kīlauea's caldera...
"Holo Mai Pele" adapted for the Dance in America series on PBS.

Geologic research during the past 10 years shows that Kīlauea's caldera formed in about A.D. 1500, immediately after a 60-year-long eruption from a shield near Thurston lava tube, and for the next 300 years was the site of sporadic explosive activity. Had we been willing to believe Hawaiian chants about Pele and Hi`iaka, and oral tradition related to William Ellis in 1823, we would have known this 100 years ago. Here's the story.

Nathaniel Emerson's translations of the chants, published in 1915 in his book "Pele and Hiiaka: a Myth from Hawaii," describe the events, which independently are told in hula by Pualani Kanaka`ole Kanahele and Nalani Kanaka`ole in the wonderful "Holo Mai Pele," adapted for the Dance in America series on PBS. The parts of this epic saga relevant to the caldera story follow.

Pele's youngest sister, Hi`iaka, agrees to travel to Kaua`i to fetch Lohi`au, whom Pele wants as her lover, provided that Pele not destroy the `ohi`a lehua forest in Puna. Pele agrees to protect the forest, provided that Hi`iaka returns in 40 days. Many adventures befall Hi`iaka and her traveling companion, among them the need to bring Lohi`au back to life. All this takes too long for Pele, and Hi`iaka, upon climbing to the top of the Wai`anae Range on her return trip, sees that the Puna forest is aflame. Angry, and tempted by Lohi`au but remaining chaste, Hi`iaka continues the voyage with Lohi`au to Hilo Bay, and they walk to the summit of Kīlauea. There, in front of her older sister, Hi`iaka makes love with Lohi`au. Furious, Pele kills Lohi`au and throws his body into Kalua o Pele, the pit indenting Kīlauea's summit shield. Hi`iaka digs frantically to recover the body, rocks flying amid warnings not to go too deeply or water will come in and put out Pele's fires. Eventually Hi`iaka and Lohi`au get together and remain so today.

What were the impressive events that destroyed the Puna forest and resulted in the deep hole at Kīlauea's summit? A reasonable interpretation is that they record the two largest volcanic events to have taken place on the island since human occupation: the 60-year-long eruption of the 'Aila'au lava flow from the Thurston area and the collapse of Kīlauea's summit to form the caldera.

The lava flow covered most of Kīlauea north of the east rift zone, reaching to the coast and destroying forest vital to Hawaiian needs. Such a flow is likely recorded in the oral tradition as Pele's revenge for what she thought was a lingering romantic liaison between Hi`iaka and Lohi`au.

The collapse of Kīlauea's summit must have made an equal impression on people living on the volcano. It is memorialized by Hi`iaka's digging for Lohi`au, an excavation that must have been very deep to elicit the warning about water. The present-day water table is some 515 m (1,700 feet) below the caldera.

Taken at face value, then, the chants tell us that the caldera formed immediately after a huge lava flow, exactly what we scientists have come to recognize only recently.

In 1823, Ellis was told that Kīlauea "had been burning from time immemorial" and had overflowed some part of the country during the reign of every king that had governed Hawaii: that in earlier ages it used to boil up, overflow its banks, and inundate the adjacent country; but that, for many kings' reigns past, it had kept below the level of the surrounding plain, continually extending its surface and increasing its depth, and occasionally throwing up, with violent explosion, huge rocks or red-hot stones."

This oral tradition says that the caldera had existed "for many kings' reigns past," not just since 1790, as scientists used to believe. If "many" means 10-15 kings, that would put the formation of the caldera near A.D. 1500, assuming a generational span of 20-25 years. Though vague, it is consistent with the age of the `Aila`au flow and ensuing caldera collapse. The oral tradition also tells of sporadic explosions during the 300 years since the caldera formed.

The chants and oral traditions confirm what geologists learned only recently about Kīlauea and demonstrate how important those volcanic events were to island residents. More such chants probably exist, ready to help us understand Kīlauea's eventful past.


Volcano Activity Update

This past week, activity levels at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano have remained at background levels. The number of earthquakes located in the summit area has slightly increased (usually less than 10 per day that are large enough to locate) with the largest number located south and west of Halema`uma`u. Widening of the summit caldera, indicating inflation, continues.

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. On clear nights, glow is visible from several vents within the crater. Lava is flowing through the PKK lava tube from its source on the southwest flank of Pu`u `O`o to the ocean. About 1 kilometer south of Pu`u `O`o, the Campout flow branches off from the PKK tube. The PKK and Campout tubes feed two widely separated ocean entries, at East Lae`apuki and East Ka`ili`ili, respectively. Both entries are located inside Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

From September 10 through 13, breakouts from the Campout tube provided good viewing-particularly at night--of lava streams descending Pulama pali. These flows had reached the 400-ft elevation by the 13th, with smaller breakouts extending to the coastal plain along the Campout flow.

Access to the sea cliff near the ocean entries is closed, due to significant hazards. If you visit the eruption site, check with the rangers for current updates, and remember to carry lots of water when venturing out onto the flow field.

There were four earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island reported felt within the past week, three of which were located beneath the northwest flank of Mauna Kea. A magnitude-2.8 earthquake occurred at 00:50 a.m. H.s.t. on Thursday, September 7, and was located 11 km (7 miles) southeast of Waimea at a depth of 13 km (8 miles). A magnitude-2.0 earthquake occurred later that same day at 3:09 p.m. and was located 3 km (2 miles) southwest of Pu`u `O`o at a depth of 3 km (2 miles). A magnitude-2.4 earthquake occurred at 5:40 p.m. H.s.t. on Friday, September 8, and a magnitude-3.4 earthquake occurred at 2:48 a.m. on Monday, September 11; both were located 11 km (7 miles) southeast of Waimea at a depth of 14 km (9 miles).

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, earthquake activity remained low beneath the volcano's summit (five earthquakes were located). Extension of distances between locations spanning the summit, indicating inflation, continues at slow rates.

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