Volcano Watch: Scientists look to Hawaiian chants for mention of past crater lakes

  • The growing lake of groundwater within Halemaumau at the summit of Kilauea Volcano as it looked on Dec. 18. Learn more about this crater lake during Volcano Awareness Month in January 2020. An overview of the scheduled talks and hikes is posted in “HVO News” at https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo. (USGS photo/by M. Patrick)

The Halemaumau crater lake at the summit of Kilauea Volcano is on everyone’s mind at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

This is the first lake of groundwater observed on the crater floor in nearly 200 years. So we looked to Hawaiian chants for mention of a crater lake before western contact and whether it was associated with explosive eruptions.

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To our knowledge, a lake is not mentioned explicitly, but Hawaiians did tell a few stories where Pelehonuamea faced the threat of water drowning her volcanic fires at Kilauea. A few are briefly recounted here.

Pele and her older sister Namakaokahai, the eldest in a family of many siblings, were imbued with different powers — Pele reigned over volcanoes and eruptions; Namakaokahai ruled the seas and beaches.

Namaka, as she is known to friends, hated when Pele spread lava over beaches and intruded land into the ocean. Pele didn’t appreciate Namaka trying to remove lava from the coasts. They fought frequently. We see these two sisters continuing to fight with spectacular explosive displays each time lava enters the ocean.

Another Pele story involving water features Kamapuaa, the pig deity from Oahu, who traveled to Kilauea to woo Pele and take her for his wife. Pele persistently spurned his advances, insulting him and even trying to kill him. Kamapuaa’s infatuation turned into anger, and the pig-man flooded Pele’s crater with water to put out her volcanic fires.

Fortunately, Pele’s brother hid her firesticks and used them to reignite the volcanic flames. Some versions of this story describe Pele chasing Kamapuaa to the sea as either a lava flow or ejected hot rocks; other versions resolve the conflict in a brief marriage.

A better-known story is the saga of Hiiakaikapoliopele, Pele’s youngest sister. It’s a long story mostly focused on Hiiaka’s journey from Kilauea Crater to Kauai to retrieve Pele’s lover, Lohiau. Along the way, Hiiaka developed into a powerful woman.

The journey was long, and Pele became suspicious that Lohiau was being unfaithful to her.

When Hiiaka arrived at the Kilauea Crater rim with her new husband, Lohiau, Pele was incensed and ordered her siblings to kill him as punishment. This enraged Hiiaka and she decided to retrieve Lohiau’s spirit to revive him, and to seek revenge and destroy Pele by flooding Kilauea Crater with water.

Hiiaka jumped down to the crater floor, and not finding the spirit of her husband, stomped her feet.

“The entire crater of Kilauea was rocked and the cliff walls of Uekahuna trembled” (from “The Epic Tale of Hiiakaikapoliopele” translated by Nogelmeier) and the first layer of Kilauea cracked open. She looked down, but still not seeing her husband, she stomped again.

She continued stomping through several layers without finding her husband’s spirit. The described effects of Hiiaka repeatedly stomping to get deeper beneath the crater floor are eerily like the continuous strong shaking of the 2018 collapse events.

Hiiaka finally got down to the fifth layer that was holding back water, which, if released, would rise and flood the crater, turning Kilauea into a lake and putting out Pele’s fires forever. At the last instant, Hiiaka was dissuaded from her destructive task and reconciled with her sister.

Hiiaka was seeking groundwater like that which appears in Halemaumau today. Geophysical studies over the past 30-40 years showed the presence of a water table, elevated about 2,000-2,600 feet above sea level, beneath the caldera floor. HVO scientists hypothesize that the currently growing lake is an exposure of this groundwater returning to its former level following the 2018 summit collapse. It is only visible to us because of the deep pit formed by that collapse.

An analogy is digging a hole in beach sand. If you dig deep enough, water will start to flow through the sand into the hole.

HVO geologists think this Hiiaka story may have been inspired by an earlier Kilauea caldera collapse about 1500 CE. Although in most versions of the story Kamapuaa’s deluge didn’t result in explosions and Hiiaka never unleashed subterranean water, geologic study of post-collapse explosive deposits suggests at least an intermittent presence of a lake.

These legends are but a few from the rich Hawaiian literature on Pelehonuamea and her volcanoes. Along with geologic studies, they can provide insight to understanding the ever-changing volcanic landscape of Kilauea Volcano.

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Please visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

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