When people think of Hawaiʻi they usually conjure up images of sundrenched beaches on Oʻahu, Maui, or Kauaʻi. But the real heart and soul of the archipelago are the massive volcanoes that created it, something affirmed yet again by the recent eruption of Mauna Loa, Earth’s largest active volcano. The twelve-day event that started at 11:30 p.m. on November 27, Mauna Loa’s first eruption since 1984, generated an explosion of media coverage across the globe. Millions watched the spectacle via television, social media, and the internet, transfixed by the handiwork of Hawaiians’ goddess of volcanoes, Pelehonuamea—”Pele of the sacred land.”
All photos by Tom Peek unless otherwise credited.
Wee-hour wake up: ‘Mauna Loa is erupting.’
“Tom, someone’s driven into the yard,” Catherine said, nudging me in the wee hours of Monday, November 28.
By the time I was alert enough to comprehend her words and then rise from our bed, I could see a flashlight in the back yard of our rainforest cottage. “Tom? Catherine?” came a distant voice through the window. I threw on a pair of shorts and dashed to the kitchen, swinging open the door. There on the back lanai stood John Dvorak, former USGS planetary geophysicist and fellow “lava hound” with whom we’d witnessed firsthand numerous eruptive events.
“Mauna Loa is erupting,” he said in a remarkably calm tone, typical of this consummate scientist and acclaimed science history author, a statement confirmed by the bright red glow visible through the trees behind him. Awakened in the wee hours, he noticed a text from his daughter in Budapest alerting him to the eruption, and he’d mobilized. “I’m heading up to Uwekahuna,” he said, referring to the summit ridge of Kilauea where, weather permitting, Mauna Loa’s eruption would be clearly visible.
After a quick check of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory webcams—and listening to the three voice mails John had left us while our ringers were turned off—we, too, were out the door. The whole sky to the north was red on our seven-minute drive to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, and within minutes we joined John on the rim of Kilauea to see the first eruption of Mauna Loa in 38 years.
There, standing between two erupting volcanoes—the towering Mauna Loa plume in front of us and Kilauea’s glowing lava lake at our backs—we all felt grateful to be living in such a dynamic place on Earth, the domain of Pele. To Native Hawaiians, she is a powerful goddess of creation. I was reminded of their ancient chant: ʻEleʻele kau mai!: “Let awe possess me!”, and that certainly happened to us that morning.
After dawn, we all headed back to our homes, to get some sleep and gear up for our next attempt that night to witness the new eruption. But from what vantage point? At that time no one knew which rift zone or radial vents would erupt, and there was great worry that if magma migrated from the summit caldera to its Southwest Rift—above the volcano’s steepest slopes—whole subdivisions built there since the last eruption would be in peril, along with the primary highway on that side of the island. Fortunately, a few hours after the eruption began, Pele moved into the Southeast Rift, venting towering lava fountains from several fissures that fed massive flows pouring toward the vast saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Could we reach the high country of Mauna Kea before Civil Defense closed the Saddle Road, as it had early in the 1984 eruption?
Heading up to the high country . . .
John reached the Saddle Road before us, as had numerous other islanders, already lining the edge of the highway to gaze at the astounding sight. Fortunately, Civil Defense had not yet closed the thoroughfare, and indeed would soon establish a safer viewing area parallel to the highway to accommodate the throngs of people eager to witness the eruption, including Native Hawaiians and other islanders paying homage to Pele. By the time we reached the Mauna Kea access road, numerous other islanders had parked all along the steep mountain road, and John was already situated on a towering cinder cone near the visitor center at Hale Pohaku. The road to the summit was closed because of snowfall.
We stopped at several vantage points along the access road to take pictures, but didn’t linger. Our long-planned destination in the event of a Mauna Loa eruption was a private spot on a remote hunting road high up Mauna Kea and only accessible with four-wheel-drive. Shortly after 8:00 p.m. we were there.
Alone in silence, standing on ancient Mauna Kea cinder now strewn with fresh strands of golden Pele’s hair, we watched the massive flows migrate down Mauna Loa. Stars shone brightly above us while lightning flashed to the north from a passing thunderstorm which had left a dusting of snow on the summit’s cones and observatories.
We sat on the Tacoma’s tailgate, mesmerized, for six hours. We nibbled the supper of cold pizza, coconut manju, and other snacks we’d packed and drank the rest of our coffee and tea, now also cold. Finally, the frigid alpine air and our lack of sleep sent us back down the mountain, but we caught stunning views of the eruption almost all the way back to Volcano Village. When we finally got home, we took a long nap, ate a real meal, and caught up on news coverage of the eruption, already global and in some cases surprisingly detailed. But the best reporting by far was local, in Hilo’s daily Tribune Herald, on the island’s web-based Big Island Video News channel, and from Honolulu’s Hawaiʻi News Now television station. But for former eruption rangers like Catherine and me, the detailed daily summaries by blogger Dane duPont and geologist Philip Ong on the Hawaiʻi Tracker website and Facebook page were the most thorough and interesting reports, and we checked in with them that night.
Was another disaster ahead . . . like Kilauea’s 2018 eruption?
As the eruption continued, Pele’s flows crossed the remote access road and powerlines to NOAA’s famous Mauna Loa weather observatory. These soon consolidated into one main channel that eventually reached within a few miles of the island’s major cross-island highway, the Saddle Road (aka Daniel K. Inouye Highway, in tribute to the Senator’s having secured federal military money to build it). Throngs of people, including visitors from all over the world, crowded the public viewing area that Hawaiʻi Country had opened on military land near the highway, and national and international media coverage grew.
Islanders speculated on where the goddess would take her flows. Would she bury the Saddle Road and the nearby Mauna Kea observatory access road? Or pour east toward the island’s largest city of Hilo as she had in 1984, triggering evacuations? Or would she migrate west and threaten the U.S. military’s deeply controversial Pohakuloa Training Area or the complex of Kona resorts far below it (as portrayed in my novel Daughters of Fire, albeit via a different route).
As often happens during potentially destructive eruptions, some advocated diverting the lava, but out of the realism that comes from experience—and a deep-seated cultural respect for Native Hawaiians and their acceptance of Pele’s will—officials in Hawaiʻi did not take those diversion calls seriously.
Closer to home . . .
Back in Volcano, word spread among residents about the many places inside the community and at the nearby national park that had good vantage points for watching the eruption. Among those were several spots along a rural road on the outskirts of Volcano Village that offered views day and night just a few minutes from our home.
The historic eruption ends . . .
The eruption continued for another week, its massive aʻa flow slowing and widening as it crossed the flatter terrain near the Saddle Road. Anticipating that the highway would soon be buried, on December 9 Native Hawaiians who had blocked the Mauna Kea Access Road in 2019 to keep TMT construction vehicles off the mountain returned to the area of their former encampment to “clean the land for Pele” before she arrived. But she never got there. A day later, on December 10, the lava supply to Fissure 3 ceased, and on December 13 scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory declared the eruption over. Uncannily, that same day the nearly year-long eruption on Kilauea also stopped.
Even so, thousands of people still gathered at the County’s viewing area in the saddle to gaze at the great stalled flow and watch its fading glow. The eruption story moved off the world’s front pages, and scientists began consolidating their data and drawing comparisons with previous Mauna Loa eruptions.
Like other islanders, I felt a mix of emotions when both volcanoes went quiet. The dire threat to human infrastructure was over, and I was greatly relieved that residents no longer had to worry about the kinds of devastation and displacement that had occurred during Kilauea’s 2018 rift eruption in lower Puna. But many of us had hoped that Pele would inundate the Army’s live-fire bombing range at Pohakuloa Training Area. That would have sealed decades of ordnance under her stony flows, finally reclaiming land that state and federal officials have refused to decommission or even meaningfully regulate.
It was also sad to accept that the dazzling orange flows that had awed us were extinguished, our night skies no longer glowed red, and the magnificent spectacle of nature’s primal beauty and power were now just a memory to relish until Pele’s next island-building venture.
Was there a deeper impact?
I wondered, had the daily tsunami of international media coverage of Mauna Loa’s marvels—primordial forces of our evolving planet—left any enduring impression on people beyond Hawaiʻi? Had they gained a deeper appreciation of nature’s wonder and power? Had they noticed how Hawaiʻi islanders, particularly Native Hawaiians, humbly accept—indeed revere—those creative forces, rather than foolishly try to defy them? That they soberly made plans to simply get out of the way?
Every time there’s an eruption, hurricane, wildfire, tsunami, or flood, we Westerners have an opportunity to reconsider our centuries-old notion that we can control nature, and that somehow we’re immune from the planet’s responses to all our foolhardy schemes that go awry because they’re incompatible with Earth’s geological and biological systems. Global warming, pollution, species extinction, natural resources depletion, radioactive waste, you name it.
A volcanic eruption like Mauna Loa’s can threaten communities but also remind us of Earth’s enchantment. And it can foster humility and deepen our relationship with natural forces. I wonder how many people watching our recent eruption, here and across the globe, felt that? If they did, then that was yet another gift from Pele . . . this time to the world.
We can hope anyway.