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As Hawaii’s Mauna Loa erupted, officials warned of ‘Pele’s hair’ made of lava

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Don’t worry about the lava. But watch out for the hair of a goddess.

That was the message from U.S. government officials minutes after the world’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa, erupted for the first time in nearly four decades.

The spewing lava did not threaten homes, they said — but there could be a risk as lava bubbles explode, sending delicate, golden strands of molten lava resembling human hair blowing downwind.

Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano erupts for first time in 38 years

The phenomenon known as Pele’s hair is named after Pelehonuamea, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire, who reputedly has the power to create through destruction.

“Her presence can be felt by those who visit her volcanic domain and lives within the hearts and minds of those who experience her power. The presence of Pelehonuamea is not necessarily approached with fear, but with respect,” according to the National Park Service.

Video taken on Nov. 28 shows the extent of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa’s lava flow after erupting one day earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

Pele’s hair is the byproduct of a geological process in which gas bubbles in the lava burst and rapidly cool, Park Service officials said. The bubbles’ explosions stretch the molten lava as it immediately cools. The resulting delicate strands can reach several feet in length and are about a micron (0.001 millimeters) thick.

Since they’re so light, the strands can become airborne and float on the wind, according to the Park Service. They cluster in low-lying areas to make dense mats that can become several inches deep. While they look like hair, officials warned that they are, in fact, glass.

Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, is erupting. Here’s why and what will happen next.

“While fragile and brittle, they are also sharp. As tiny pieces of glass, they can become lodged in human skin and much worse, eyes. Caution around the fibers is necessary to avoid injury from the slivers,” Park Service officials said on their website.

“The bubbles, when they burst, stretch and stretch into a really thin film,” geochemist Kendra Lynn told Discover, comparing the process to “when you pull a caramel candy apart, or like a piece of bubblegum.”

Birds use Pele’s hair to make their nests, along with other material from the surrounding environment, according to the Park Service.

Mauna Loa started erupting around 11:30 p.m. local time Sunday — the first time in 38 years. The eruption did not immediately endanger communities below, but the U.S. Geological Survey warned the roughly 200,000 people on the Big Island that it “can be very dynamic, and the location and advance of lava flows can change rapidly.”

“At this time, lava flows are contained within the summit area and are not threatening downslope communities,” it said. “Winds may carry volcanic gas and possibly fine ash and Pele’s hair downwind.”


Source: Landsat imagery

via Google Earth

LAUREN TIERNEY/THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Landsat imagery via Google Earth

LAUREN TIERNEY/THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Landsat imagery via Google Earth

LAUREN TIERNEY/THE WASHINGTON POST