By Dr. Robert Thorson
Kilauea is erupting on the state of Hawaii’s Big Island, reminding us that we all owe our existence to a power greater than ourselves.
One of the residents who evacuated from the sputtering volcanic rift zone was, Tesha “Mirah” Montoya, who said: ”My heart and soul’s there. … I’m nothing without the land. It’s part of my being.”
Alas, that land on which she built is transient terrain. The whole Big Island is little more than a colossal pile of cooled lava that’s been building upward for the last million years, layer by layer. To build a home on the flank of Kilauea is to build on a spot that is certain to be rifted apart, wafted by toxic gas and ultimately buried.
Such land is not being destroyed by the volcano. It’s being created. In fact, most of Kilauea is less than 1,000 years old. Montoya and her family built their house within a “raw jungle” that didn’t grow until the lava on which it seeded cooled. Hawaii’s largest land mass will keep growing until the magma beneath it stops rising, after which it will wash away and sink beneath the sea to join the previously sunken islands of the Emperor seamount chain. Washing and sinking is also the fate of every continent on earth, all of which were initially born of volcanic fury, and all of which will likely be submerged again.
Perhaps the ancient Hawaiians were right after all – that God is a goddess whose name is Pele. This superpower resides not in the cold, empty vacuity of heaven but in the hot heart our planet, from which everything we know and love was born. Though the elements from which Earth was made came from the star dust of Father Time, everything more complex – our bodies, food, water, air, families, thoughts and legacies – was born from the deep interior of Mother Earth.
From this perspective, the story of all earthly things isn’t history but herstory.
Her starting point, about 5 billion years ago, was a cold mass of gathered planetesimals. After being heated by radioactive decay, asteroid impacts and other processes, everything melted, producing the steam and gas of our atmosphere, the molten iron of our core and the rocky crust on which we live. When Earth cooled, this steam and gas condensed to create the water that circulates above and through that crust. This water gave rise to life, which gave rise to intelligence, which gave rise to us.
So, when Pele gets restless, our only long-term choice is to evacuate. Earth’s volcanoes will do what they will, indifferent to what we think. The recent eruptions give us a chance to acknowledge gratitude for what we have, not disappointment for what is being taken away. Even though human beings are now the dominant geological agency on planet earth, we don’t even come close to Pele’s power when she gets riled.
The late writer Ursula K. LeGuin was thrilled by the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which still bears its female name. “The well-behaved, quiet, pretty, serene, domestic creature peaceably yielding herself to the uses of man all of a sudden said NO. And she spat dirt and smoke and steam.”
Back to Kilauea. ”I felt like the whole side of our hill was going to explode,” wrote Montoya, of the unusually large, magnitude 6.9 earthquake that struck near her home. Though she held her ground during the hundreds of small quakes, the opening of fiery vents and the emissions of toxic gas, this largest quake in four decades finally drove her from her home.
That Hawaiian quake was large enough to be felt in Connecticut by the seismometers of UConn earth science. The SO2 gas from the current eruption will be reaching us soon, adding to the air pollution we regulate for public health. The CO2 released will warm the climate slightly, raising our seas.
Let’s keep in mind that Kilauea is a small volcano by the earthly standards of the Yellowstone super-volcano that may, one day, change the face of North America and reconfigure the composition of earth’s atmosphere.
Ultimately, Pele is in charge. She deserves our reverence and respect.