Historic depictions of New Zealands Whakaari/White Island help contemporary volcanologists better understand patterns in eruptions. Credit: (photo)grard/Flickr,CC BY-SA 2.0; (drawing)State Library of New South Wales (PXA 2073),CC BY-SA 3.0 AU. The photo and illustrationfrom an album of drawings in Australia and New Zealand, 18441866, compiled by T. E. Donnehave been modified to blend together. The right portion of the photo and left portion of the drawing are not shown.
In Native Hawaiian Pelehonuamea chants, several verses describe a fight between Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes, and her youngest sister, Hiiaka: In a jealous rage, Pele burns the forest that Hiiaka loved, then kills her lover and throws him into the Klauea volcano. Jumping in, Hiiaka starts digging to find himbut carefully; if she digs too deep, water will bubble up and put out the fire of Pele.
Native Hawaiians view such stories as important and instructive and have passed them down through generations. But when white missionaries came to the islands in the 19th century, they dismissed such chants and stories as primitive narratives. Not long after Hawaii was colonized, the modern academic discipline of geology developed, and Western scientists began chipping away at the islands old lava flows, studying rift zones and escaping gases. Through these and other methods, they discovered what had already been reported in the chants: Sometime during the 15th century, a huge lava flow coveredWao Kele O Puna, a lowland tropical rain forest along KlaueasEast Rift Zone, and groundwater interacting with hot magma caused a steam explosion that helped form the volcanos current caldera.
As ecologist and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory volcanologist emeritusDon Swansonsaid at a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)workshopin 2017, Recent evidence that weve acquired scientifically is entirely consistent with what I think the chants are telling us.
Chants, mythologies, and popular stories about eruptions and their aftermath are often not top-of-mind for geologists and volcanologists, but that is starting to change. In some cases, researchers are teaming up with Indigenous experts to better understand volcanology embedded in oral traditions. In other cases, theyre working with historians to find and interpret eyewitness accounts of eruptions and associated data in archives, newspaper articles, journals, telegrams, and different sources.
Undertaking such work is critical, not just to illuminate (and, in some cases, correct) accounts of the past, but also because many volcanoes are not actively monitored and stories and chants can sometimes provide the only clues to past behavior. Whats needed to better mitigate risk is a more complete understanding of how the worlds volcanoes transition from repose to unrest, and unrest to eruption, argues a 2020Nature Reviews Earth and Environmentcommentaryfrom volcanologistsDavid Pyleof the University of Oxford andJenni Barclayof the University of East Anglia.
Stories and other historical records, therefore, may be some of the best sources from which to gain more robust knowledge about these phases of volcanic activity. Consider, Pyle and Barclay write, this line of poetry, written by jazz musicianShake Keane, about the rapid transition of the LaSoufrirevolcano on the island of Saint Vincent in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on 13 April 1979:
That thing split Good Friday in twoand that good new morning groanedand snappedlike breaking an old habit.
The next stanza of Soufrire chronicles the subsequent evacuation:
Within minutespeoplewho had always been leaving nowherebegan arriving nowhereentire lives stuffed in pillow casesand used plastic bags.
Such perspectives, Barclay said, are invaluable. To understand the complete history of a volcano is a piece of detective work. And the historical aspects of that can be incredibly insightful.
Solving a Mystery
Painting, not poetry, is what helped excite volcanologistKatharine Cashmanabout teaming withCaroline Williams. Williams, who died in 2019, was an expert in Latin American history who had come across a painting depicting t