On the big island of Hawaii, the Kilauea Volcano erupted at around 5:00 p.m. local time on Thursday. Two neighborhoods near Kilauea were forced to evacuate, as lava flows seeped from a fissure onto a highway. The lava flow began roughly six hours after a magnitude 5.0 earthquake struck the area and the region had been shaken by several smaller tremors in the days prior to the eruption. Less than two hours after the initial eruption, lava flows stopped and had only spread around 30 feet away from the fissure.
Hawaiians are no stranger to volcanic activity. Lava last flowed from Kilauea in 2014, encroaching upon the town of Pahoa and even engulfing the local cemetery. Thankfully, Hawaiians know who to hold accountable when magma oozes from the earth — Pele, the goddess of fire.
“If Pele comes, Pele comes,” resident Curt Redman told KHNL. “Now we’re kind of crossing our fingers to see what Pele might do next.”
According to Hawaiian folklore, Pele resides in Halema’uma’u, the most active vent on Kilauea. Pele is said to have created the Hawaiian islands by controlling volcanic lava flows. Like most mythological tales, the story of Pele is an anthropomorphic version of a naturalistic explanation. In fact, the islands formed by continuous magma flows entering the ocean and quickly cooling and solidifying into rock. Because there are still active volcanoes in Hawaii, the islands are constantly growing.
The unique geological conditions near Hawaii also account for some of the volcanic activity in the region. In particular, seismic unrest is closely linked with volcanic activity. While it generally takes very powerful earthquakes (magnitude 6.0 or stronger) to trigger an eruption, any amount of tectonic movement can affect a volcano’s stability. In fact, scientists believe that the most telling sign of an impending supervolcano eruption will be significant seismic activity. This could include uplift — when the ground cracks apart and is pushed upward — of tens to hundreds of meters.
For extremely active volcanoes like Kilauea, which seems constantly on the verge of excreting magma, it’s possible that smaller quakes can act as triggers. Or maybe Pele was just blowing off some steam.