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June 24, 1999

A weekly feature provided by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.


Hawaiian students help to study Kilauea

Each summer, staff members of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory have participated in student training programs with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH). One of the programs on which HVO scientists have helped is the Rocks and Rolls volcanology session of Na Pua No`eau. This program provides educational and cultural opportunities for gifted and talented Native Hawaiian students between the ages of 11 and 18. Those opportunities also include learning astronomy, aquaculture, oceanography, the arts, and learning aboard the Hokule`a. The program is unique in two ways: each class is a hands-on experience and is a blend of current Western science/technology and Hawaiian mo`olelo (stories) and practices.

Classes meet for about six hours a day for two weeks. Na haumana, or the students, reside at UHH dormitories during the two weeks. The program is administered by a group of dedicated, wonderful individuals under the leadership of Dr. David Sing.

In the Rocks and Rolls class, na haumana get a hands-on education in the geology of Hawai`i, including exposure to active lava flows when possible. On one of the first days, na haumana hike across Kilauea caldera and learn about the structure of Hawaiian volcanoes and eruptions. They learn some Hawaiian protocols and codes of conduct for entering sacred and special places like Kilauea. As they are hiking, their kumu (teachers) share Pele and Kamapua`a stories, explaining many of the geological and biological features that they may see.

You may ask, "Why mix myth with science?" Hawaiian stories attempting to explain natural phenomena are rarely complete fabrications. Most are genuine attempts by the original storytellers to find the cause of an event or feature, efforts to understand the world in which they lived. Hawaiians are incredible observers, and their stories contain many details that we are only now beginning to understand.

Modern science has the same purpose, but different methods. Scientists at HVO use many special instruments to understand Kilauea and Mauna Loa and explain their behaviors. Hawaiian kahuna had the job centuries before, and the legacy we have from them are stories and chants, the first "Volcano Watch," in a way.

Information from these stories has been important to current scientific research. For example, on another day, na haumana may view Hawaiian footprints in the Ka`u Desert southwest of Kilauea caldera and learn about the most recent series of explosive eruptions there. Kilauea spewed ash and cinder in a violent manner, like an eruption of Mount St. Helens. Recent scientific work suggests that Kilauea may have periodically erupted like this over a time span of 300 years, ending around 1790.

Hawaiians have a story about, perhaps, the last of those eruptions. While traveling past the summit of Kilauea, a portion of Keoua's army was killed by an explosive eruption. This event occurred on or about the year 1790. Details from the story described eruption features quite well and led to the prevalent interpretation of the footprints preserved in the ash deposits. In an article published in 1921, Thomas Jaggar, founder of HVO, interpreted the footprints as those of Keoua's warriors, and that interpretation has persisted until recently.

Detailed mapping of the footprints by National Park archaeologists, HVO scientists, and a Na Pua No`eau Rocks and Rolls class shows that they are distributed over a wide area and that they go both toward and away from Kilauea. They tend to be in the general area of trails; some are directly on trails. Their wide distribution and walking direction do not suggest that they were left by a band of warriors, but rather that they were left by Hawaiians pursuing normal daily activities that required traveling through the Kilauea area.

Our Na Pua No`eau students will learn about several such areas where myth and science can coexist, maybe even help each other. Classes like these will help ensure the survival of the stories with a new generation of students and give them another reason to be proud of their Hawaiian heritage.

Eruption Update

The pause in eruptive activity at the Pu`u `O`o vent of Kilauea Volcano ended late Thursday (June 17) night shortly before midnight. HVO personnel camping near a skylight of the tube system to sample the first lava erupted following the pause, observed lava flowing in the tube at 11:50 p.m. Lava started flowing into the sea near Kamokuna at about 7:30 p.m. on Friday, as the old tube system was reoccupied. Surface flows from breakouts on the pali and the coastal flats continue to be active as this article is being written on June 24.

Three aftershocks of the April 16 magnitude-5.6 Wood Valley earthquake were reported felt by residents of Pahala. The earthquakes occurred on June 18 at 7:32 p.m., on June 21 at 7:34 a.m. and on June 22 at 6:51 a.m. They had magnitudes of 2.7, 2.0, and 2.2, respectively.

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Updated: 2 July 1999