This winter has been a dramatic one on the Island of Hawaiʻi, with repeated snowfalls—including blizzards—on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa and one of the most spectacular lava lakes at Kilauea in memory. To Native Hawaiians these are the handiwork of two potent deities, Poliʻahu, the goddess of snow and ice and Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. Here are some photos that document those recent wonders while we wait for the next round of Big Island marvels to unfold. (Photos by Tom Peek unless otherwise credited.)
Snowfalls, then a mysteriously quiet lava lake . . .
While summit dustings of snow occurred at the beginning of the spectacular twelve-day Mauna Loa eruption that began on November 27, the heaviest flurries arrived shortly after that 14,000-foot volcano went quiet. Interestingly, on the same day that Pele ceased her activity on Mauna Loa, the long-active lava lake inside Halemaʻumaʻu went quiet too. So for several weeks it was the handiwork of Poliʻahu that mesmerized islanders.
The lava lake comes back to life, even forming a perched pond!
Then, after almost a month of quiet, the lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu came to life on January 5, 2023. That night Tom and his wife, artist Catherine Robbins, trekked out to the caldera rim to watch. Over the next weeks, fissures in the lake created numerous lava fountains that spewed molten rock into the air, typically 15 to 30 feet high, but sometimes twice that height. (Spectacular videos of the eruption’s first minutes are available at this Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park website).
Melting and more snow . . .
Between blizzards, Hawaiʻi’s intense tropical sun melted Mauna Kea’s mantle of white, leaving only patches of snow and ice on the mountain in early January. But by early March, Poliʻahu had again spread her beauty across the summit region—all the way down to 9,000 feet! Even the road below the Visitor Information Station at Hale Pohaku was closed for several hours due to ice and snow.
A twenty-five acre molten lake of lava . . .
By mid-January, several active lava ponds had formed on the lake’s crust, with the largest being a sprawling 25 acres of constant molten activity. This continued until March 7, ending sixty-one days of the most spectacular Kilauea lava lake in memory.
In early March, quiet again . . .
In late February lava in Halemaʻumaʻu began draining away, and the eruption ceased on March 7. It has remained quiet since then, but gas, steam, and continued seismicity and ground deformation indicate that magma is continuing to fill the volcano beneath the surface. The lake’s molten flows are frozen now, but volcanic fumes and steam seep out of cracks in the hot rock. Nighttime glow from the crater is also gone, but moonlit billows of vapor still provide a marvelous spectacle under the stars.
As of this writing—in early spring—Poliʻahu’s summit mantles of snow and ice are gradually receding, but low-pressure weather systems in the Pacific can still bring springtime snowfalls, even blizzards, to the summits. Meanwhile, Pele’s lava lake remains a gnarled crust of frozen lava dotted with islands that once migrated across her now hardened flows. And daily logs of USGS data clearly show that the goddess continues to stir just beneath the surface.
Links to videos about Poliʻahu and Pele that you might enjoy . . .
The legend of Poliʻahu as recounted by Adam Keawe Manalo-Camp (click through to YouTube).
Kamehameha School’s portrayal of the legend of Poliʻahu and Kukahauʻula.
A beautiful musical tribute to the goddess Poliʻahu, written and performed by Waimea’s Hāwane Rios.
A wonderful interview about Pele and the Pele dance tradition with Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias.
Halau O Kekuhi dancing to Pele on the caldera rim of Kilauea.
KHON interview about Pele with Professor Kaliko Baker during the 2018 Kilauea eruption.