Hawaii Volcano: Pele's Hair Is Falling From the Sky

Fine, glass tendrils — Pele’s hair — are flying around Big Island after explosive eruption

Strange as it may seem, tendrils of ribbonlike glass are wafting through the air over the Big Island of Hawaii.

An early morning alert issued by the U.S. Geological Survey reported sporadic eruptions from three Kilauea volcano fissures shooting lava 180 feet into the air. A swarm of more than 200 minor earthquakes  — most between magnitude 2 and 3 — preceded bursts of ash from the Halemaumau Crater. The wind was carrying ash southwest, affecting the towns of Pahala, Wood Valley, Naalehu and Ocean View.

The USGS estimates that as much as a quarter-inch of ash may accumulate in a narrow swath about two or three miles southwest of the summit. However, a thin coating of ash is possible as much as 30 miles from the crater.

Hawaii volcano Pele's hair is falling from the sky
A photo of Pele’s hair on the Big Island in Hawaii.

In addition to the ash, the National Weather Service is cautioning residents about the possibility of “Pele’s hair” — fine tendrils of glass that form when rapidly cooling lava is stretched in the wind. As the erupting magma quickly hardens, it can produce fibers of glass like spider webs. They are easily blown and deposited a significant distance from their source.

In this case, the phenomenon can be traced back to fissures in the well-known Leilani Estates.

The National Weather Service in Honolulu is advising people who live in the affected areas to avoid outdoor exposure if possible.

Pele’s hair and other lightweight volcanic glass particles from a high fountaining fissure in Leilani Estates are being carried downwind,” the Weather Service wrote in a special statement on Monday. “These volcanic particles can cause skin and eye irritation … scratch glass and car finishes. Use plenty of water to rinse Pele’s hair off vehicles and avoid using windshield wipers.”

Pele’s hair is widely studied by volcanologists, as the structure of particulates can tell scientists quite a bit about the inner workings of a volcano. Ash is also a great conductor of electricity, so regions prone to ashfall may see occasional static discharges much as folks in dry climates do in the wintertime.
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