Traditional Hawaiian knowledge expands our understanding of Hawaii Volcanoes


Hawaiians have occupied the lower portion of the Hawaiian archipelago for at least 800 years. They experienced many more earthquakes and eruptions in that time than Western immigrants did over the past 250 years. However, our knowledge is only robust in the past 200 years.

Without a written language, ancient Hawaiian knowledge was passed down orally. During the 19th century, the Hawaiian kingdom became one of the most literate societies in the world, and many of the sagas were written in the many Hawaiian language newspapers and collected and translated more recently.

Modern interest in the traditional Hawaiian knowledge of earthquakes and volcanic activity has spurred research into these 19th century sources. For volcano information, the most valuable of these resources is the epic poem of Pelehonuamea and her sister, Hiiakaikapoliopele. This is the story of how the volcano deity and her family came to Hawaii, as well as metaphoric descriptions of their travels and adventures within the islands.

While looking for a suitable home in Hawaii, Pelehonuamea travels southeast along the island chain testing the ground. Many of these locales, such as Puuowaina (Punchbowl) and Laeahi (Diamond Head) are sites of rejuvenated volcanism. Pelehonuamea rejected these because water was found at too shallow a depth. Halemaumau was her ultimate choice of residence.

Pualani Kanahele, in her recent book “Ka Honua Ola: Elieli Kau Mai,” includes translation and interpretation of several chants from the same epic poem, focusing on their cultural importance. However, the last chapter deals with “Hulihia” chants which “illustrate a sizable or major eruption changing the land so drastically that it is unrecognizable from day to day.” The vivid descriptions of exploding and flying rocks, lightning, thunder and shrouding by volcanic smoke in these chants evoke explosive eruptions. These have been a renewed focus for Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologists over the past several years and clearly relate to explosive activity in the 16th to 18th centuries.

There are additional sources of traditional Hawaiian knowledge about volcanoes and earthquakes. Hawaiians wrote letters and articles on many topics for Hawaiian language newspapers. One of the first eruptions to be described in writing in the Hawaiian language was the eruption of Mauna Loa in 1859. Residents discussed the effects on nearby farms and roads and the behavior of the lava flow. Once lava reached the ocean, the sound was described as unbearable, literally “cracking the ears of all who listen.”

An additional source of information on what Hawaiians knew comes from interviews in the journals of early travelers. For example, William Ellis in 1823, traveling through the Kilauea caldera area with residents of nearby districts, recorded their answers to questions about the origin of that volcano. Their responses summarized in a few sentences what geologists have pieced together over the past century or more about Kilauea’s history — that eruptions are accompanied by earthquakes and are occasionally explosive, that magma connections existed underground by which lava could flow to the sea, and that Kilauea summit used to be taller but collapsed. HVO geologist Don Swanson recently worked out the timing of explosive activity in Kilauea caldera starting with its collapse about 500 years ago.

Hawaiians even had a good sense about how the volcano worked and when eruptions were likely. In 1826, they told missionary Artemis Bishop that lava in the summit area would have to rise a little higher before it would discharge itself and flow into the sea. Modern-day volcanologists know this to be the essence of forecasting Hawaiian eruptions. The 2011 Kamoamoa eruption just west of Puu Oo in the Kilauea east rift zone was a good example where the summit inflated prior to the outbreak.

Online resources make these researches easier. An increasing number of searchable Hawaiian and English language newspapers are being posted online. More old books are being scanned, including rare accounts of early travelers in and around the Pacific Ocean. Our understanding of traditional Hawaiian knowledge will increase. But western scientists will likely continue to play catch-up while adding quantitative details to the general picture provided by Hawaiian knowledge.

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within the Halemaumau Overlook vent produced nighttime glow visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and via HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lava lake level fluctuated slightly over the past week, in concert with deflation and inflation of the summit.

On Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, breakouts from the Peace Day tube remain active on the coastal plain. Small ocean entries are active on both sides of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundary. The Kahaualea 2 flow, fed from a spatter cone on the northeast edge of the Puu Oo crater, continues to advance slowly along the edge of the forest north of Puu Oo, burning vegetation. The front of the Kahaualea 2 flow this past week was at least 1.6 miles north of Puu Oo.

Visit the HVO website at hvo.wr.usgs.gov for Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists who work with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.