Kilauea volcano’s summit lava lakeUSGS Handout / Reuters

There is something remarkable about the lava spurting out of Kilauea, the miles-wide shield volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island that fissured anew last week.

It cuts across roads, forming berms of black and smoldering rock. It bursts from the ground, dancing like bubbles above a cauldron. In one video, it creeps across the land and then devours a Ford Mustang.

So far, the lava has destroyed 35 structures in total, including 25 homes. This current activity may continue for some time: On Tuesday, two new lava fissures opened. One of the new cracks sits uphill of Lanipuna Gardens, a subdivision of 250 people that was evacuated last week but has so far remained unharmed. Hawaii Civil Defense ordered the mandatory evacuation of its last remaining residents Tuesday evening.

Yet numbers don’t get at the potency of the lava, at its otherworldliness. Where other volcanoes sometimes appear powdery or drab, Kilauea’s lava glows red. Other lava hardens soon after it bursts from the ground; Kilauea’s lava remains hot enough to ooze forward, setting cars on fire. In just this episode alone, Kilauea’s energy has torn a new, 2.5-mile-long hole in the ground.

Both geoscientists and native Hawaiians agree that Hawaii’s lava is special. But they have different ways of talking about why that is—and different ways of seeing the substance that defines their profession or gives them a home.


For scientists, the defining quality of Hawaii’s lava is its chemistry. It’s what geologists call a basaltic lava, and this affects everything from its color to its hazards.

There are roughly two types of lava—and both types are, of course, runny and hot. Kilauea’s lava is formed by the melting of an oceanic plate, which means that it contains less silicon dioxide—the same mineral that becomes quartz—than continental plates. As such, it’s extremely runny and super hot. It also doesn’t put up much resistance to gases, which can freely pass through it. (When a continental plate melts, you get an eruption more like Mount St. Helens: That lava is stickier, and it often traps gas until it suddenly all escapes at once.)

Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist and disaster researcher, said this gives Hawaii’s lava a special characteristic: It’s “exactly like you imagine hot lava as a kid, leaping between furniture,” she told me in an email. “The geochemistry of Hawaiian lavas means [that it forms] smooth, laminar flow in snaking rivers. It’s also extremely hot, giving it that iconic fiery glow.”

That fiery glow, that childlike quality—it makes sense that some journalists have fallen back on cinema to describe the eruption. Watching videos of Kilauea’s lava, I kept thinking of the first time I ever saw lava on screen: the Cave of Wonders sequence in Disney’s Aladdin. Another science journalist—upon seeing the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea, which has brimmed with molten fire this month—recalled the cracks of Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings.

“Part of why these eruptions look familiar is that it’s easier to safely photograph and record them than faster-moving, more violent eruptions, so these images are the ones we more commonly see in kids’ science books, or inspiring artists when they’re animating movies,” McKinnon told me in an email.

A lava flow crosses Makamae Street in Leilani Estates. (USGS / Reuters)

“Kilauea’s lava is 1,170 degrees Celsius (or 2,140 degrees Fahrenheit) when it erupts, with the surface starting to cool within a few hundred seconds,” she said. “As it cools, it creates a crust that the lava flow breaks through over and over again.”

You can often estimate the temperature of lava by its color, she added. Yellow lava is the hottest, burning somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 degrees Celsius (about 1,830 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit). Orange lava smolders between 800 and 1,000 degrees Celsius (about 1,500 to 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit). And red lava is actually the coolest, at 600 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,100 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit).

But photographs taken at night are often color-corrected, throwing off this scale, McKinnon warned.

In addition to the many colors of lava, there are several types of lava that can appear during one eruption. “In Hawaiian-style eruptions, you get pahoehoe, the ropey lava that looks like a sticky river when flowing; and aʻa, with is the rubbly lava that looks like a tractor-tread of debris moving and tumbling,” said Eric Klemetti, a professor of volcanology at Dennison University, in an email. “Those differ based on things like temperature and crystal contact, as aʻa is a stickier lava.”

Scientists turn to precise instruments for their information. Jascha Polet, a geophysicist at California State Polytechnic at Ponoma, said researchers look to two sets of data—from instruments on the volcano itself and from images from satellites in orbit—to learn about Kilauea’s “plumbing system,” its subsurface network of lava tubes and flows.

Scientists use this data to improve their volcanism forecasts, as they try to understand “what types of deformation and seismic signals occur as precursory activity before an eruption,” Polet told me in an email.


But Western scientists were not the first people to encounter Hawaii’s volcanoes. Native Hawaiians have lived on the islands, and among the volcanoes, for more than 900 years. And their history, literature, and culture all recognize the reality of living near such a powerful phenomenon.

(A brief language note: Everyone who lives in the archipelago is called a “Hawaii resident.” The term “Hawaiian” is reserved for someone with native Hawaiian ancestry. This distinction is regularly made on the islands, including in the state constitution.)

“There’s aʻa or pahoehoe, the rough lava or the smooth lava,” said Kuʻualoha Hoʻomanawanui, a professor of literature at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “But the word for both of them is Pele.”

Pele is the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes, lava, and fire—but deity in its Western sense doesn’t quite describe the scope of Pele’s power. Many Hawaiian families trace their lineage back to Pele, meaning they count her as an ancestor.

“Pele is not just the goddess of lava. Lava is Pele,” Hoʻomanawanui told me. “The lava flows basically reaffirm what our literature tells us—that the land is alive, that Pele is alive. When we talk about the lava being alive, it’s a metaphor for the earth itself being alive. The lava is Pele, the magma is Pele, the lava flow and then when the lava hardens—each you can just replace the word with Pele.”

Even the site of the new eruption makes sense within Hawaiian culture. The current eruption has focused primarily on a subdivision called Leilani Estates. But Leilani Estates is a new name, and the subdivision sits within a larger area that Hawaiians traditionally called Keahialaka, which means “the fire of Laka.” Laka is the goddess of hula and one of Pele’s daughters.

“The Hawaiians watching are looking at the names of these places and saying, ‘Oh yeah!’” said Noelani M. Arista, a professor of Hawaiian history at the University of Hawaii. “It’s like, sometimes people are amazed that a flood will hit a flood zone. But we’ve got place names that say flood zone.

“Anyone can come and slap a new name on any thing: ‘Let’s call it Leilani Estates!’ And Leilani is a generic name. But that won’t take away from the mana, the spiritual power and characteristics of that place, that the old place name embodies,” agreed Hoʻomanawanui.

These new names “lull people into a sense of complacency,” she said. “[They think,] I’m not actually buying property and building a house in an active lava rift zone, but I’m buying a piece of paradise.”

A lava fissure crosses the road on Hawaii's Big Island on May 3. (Jeremiah Osuna / Reuters)

But sometimes these new names can be ironic. Kilauea is surrounded by rainforest, and people in Hawaii customarily link its lava flows to the Kool-Aid-red lehua flowers that grow around it. So when Hoʻomanawanui read that one of the first lava fissures in Leilani Estates opened up on Mohala Street, she laughed. “Well, of course!” she said. “Mohala means ‘to blossom,’ or ‘to bloom.’ In a way, it’s all interconnected.”

Pele’s story takes many forms—Hoʻomanawanui has studied 14 different serialized newspaper versions of it, all of which first appeared in the 19th century. But many describe a similar journey: how Pele and her family came up from an island in the South Pacific, how they found the Hawaii archipelago, and how Pele traveled to every island, looking for a place to keep her fire. She visited every island, and dug a hole in every island, until she eventually found Hawaii Island and placed her fire in Kilauea. (Hoʻomanawanui recommended that mainland Americans watch Holo Mai Pele, a PBS-filmed hula about Pele, for a credible summary of her story.)

“The story of Pele is a poetic, literary telling of what scientists would maybe call the Ring of Fire, and how volcanic activity gets to the Hawaiian islands from other parts of the Pacific,” said Hoʻomanawanui. “It’s an ideological explanation for why we don’t have volcanic activity occurring now on the other islands.”

But it’s more than a just-so story. Arista, the Hawaiian historian, contrasts how non-native Hawaii residents and native Hawaiians have discussed the recent lava flow. Much of the national media attention has focused on an American-centric understanding of the destruction, she said—for instance, by talking about the extent of property loss.

“But then you’ve got Hawaii residents saying, how amazing is the presence of this in my life,” she said. “Native people who live in the subdivision are largely saying, ‘Yes, I knew I was living in this space where volcanic activity is a huge factor, because I’ve lived my life here. And because we have this respect for Pele, I wanted to live here.’”

Hoʻomanawanui said she saw many native Hawaiians greeting the lava flow not with dread, but with acceptance. “When the flows start, you clean the house, you open the door, and you say: ‘Tūtū Pele, this is your land, take it,’” she said.

(Since Hoʻomanawanui’s family tracks its lineage back to Pele, they call her Tūtū, or grandmother. But other Hawaiians and non-Natives will call her Tūtū Pele out of respect, even if she is not an ancestor to them. “They acknowledge she’s a special force of nature—literally,” she said. Others, including non-Natives, may call her Madame Pele for the same reason.)

A fissure, opening on Luana Street in Leilani Estates, shoots lava 230 feet in the air on May 6. (USGS / Reuters)

Hoʻomanawanui and Arista told me that seeing the lava as Pele didn’t detract from the scientific understanding of it. Instead, Pele anchors the experience of the lava, envelops it, and connects it to the lives of people who came before.

“Through dance, through costuming, through specific flowers—there’s layers of representation that I think really evoke a sensory experience beyond just knowledge, beyond just understanding as a Western scientific geological process,” Hoʻomanawanui said. “It’s a complete experience that is inclusive of that [scientific] knowledge but goes way beyond it.”

“We don’t have the words for belief or faith in this stuff,” she said. Instead, she said, Westerners should see Hawaiian customary belief as a practice and as a way of understanding the world.

Lately, Hawaiian women who practice hula—including hula about Pele’s story—discuss how thrilling it is to see this real-life, contemporary connection to their art. “[Hula] is a weekly practice,” said Arista, “and that weekly practice stretches for years. So it’s a dance [these women have] come to inhabit and know—and when they watch the volcano erupting now, they can see the movement. They can see what the movement is talking about.”

“There’s a whole class of words that belong to the description of [Pele and her] family, that have to do with fire, anger, heat, and light, and you won’t know them unless you speak and read Hawaiian, and chant, and dance,” she said.

Sometimes the customary understanding can anticipate the scientific view. When Pele makes her journey from the south, she is accompanied by an entourage of family members. These represent all the activity that accompanies an eruption: So one brother may be lightning, several sisters may be the trees and flowers of the rainforest, and several other brothers are sharks.

Scientists now know that lightning can accompany a volcanic eruption. (Researchers successfully recorded volcanic thunder for the first time earlier this year.) But recent research has suggested sharks may sense volcanic lightning and electromagnetic energy with their electroreceptors. This may let them find new volcanoes—and new sources of life, and food—across the ocean.

“When you experience a volcanic eruption at the crater in the mountain, there’s a whole lot of other activity that accompanies it. There are storms that gather, there’s electrical energy in the air. I’ve seen waterspouts form offshore,” said Hoʻomanawanui. “From a Western perspective, they all get separated out—they say, look at that lava eruption—and they don’t see all the other stuff that’s happening.”

She added that many geoscientists, who spend days camped on the volcano and apart from civilization, come to see the volcano in this light. “They are often very steeped in their environment—it’s impressive to me,” she said. “It’s really a worldview-changing experience—in how you see the world, the Earth and the universe—to know that you’re really seeing new land being birthed right before your eyes.”

And that’s why many Hawaiians see the latest eruption as a kind of warning, Hoʻomanawanui told me. As the islands have filled with non-Hawaiian residents, and as these newcomers have run afoul of longstanding custom and of environmental laws, they are misunderstanding and misusing the land.

There’s a story about Pele and a place called Kapaʻahu, which is not so far from Leilani Estates on the Big Island. It tells of how Pele once wrapped herself in a cloak of aʻa lava in order to take a nap—the kapa in Kapaʻahu means cloak—and warned her family not to wake her up. Hours later, she was awakened by an incessant, annoying drumbeat. She stalked off to look for it—and she eventually found it, and an alluring male hula leader, on the other side of the archipelago: at Keʻe Beach on Kauai Island.

The most recent eruption of Kilauea was not the first one to devour cars. (InterNetwork Media / Getty)

Kapaʻahu now sits under black, hardened lava, paved over by Kilauea’s eruption a decade ago. And the northern entire section of Kauai was devastated by floods a month ago, part of a rain system that damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes across the state. Many parts of Kauai, including Keʻe Beach, remain largely inaccessible to daily traffic.

“A lot of Hawaiians in my community have been saying that they don’t really see it as a coincidence that, on one end of the archipelago, you have this horrific flooding—and now on the complete opposite end, you have lava flows destroying as well,” said Hoʻomanawanui. It seems like Hawaii is declaring its fragility and its power all at once, she said.

Arista, the historian, made a different point. “When you look at social media, at the kinds of conversations that Hawaii residents are having, they say: We’ve got floods on one end [of the archipelago], and we’ve got fire on the other. And a lot of local Hawaiians go, yep, that’s what it means to live in these islands.”*

“That fire is not a new phenomenon,” she told me. “The flood, on the other hand, might be climate change.”


* This article previously mischaracterized Noelani M. Arista's reference to Hawaii residents, and her perspective on volcanic eruption. We regret the error.

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