As if the 2,400-acre lava field from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano and reports of a thick blanket of “vog” wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. Geological Survey warned late Wednesday night of volcanic glass—Pele’s hair—falling from the sky.
Pele’s hair, named for the mythical Hawaiian goddess, is referred to as “hair” for a reason. When erupting lava comes into contact with the air, it cools into thin, hair-like strands or pebble-like clumps, depending on the velocity of the eruption. Wind seems to play a role, too: The higher the velocity of the wind, the thinner and more hair-like the Pele’s hair. The glass fibers become incredibly lightweight, getting carried by the wind across land.
You don’t want to get tangled in this hair, though. Its glass composition, as the USGS warns in its statement, is incredibly abrasive.
“Pele's hair and and other lightweight volcanic glass from high fountaining of Fissure 8 are falling to the west of the fissure and accumulating on the ground within Leilani Estates,” the statement reads. “Winds may waft lighter particles to greater distances. Residents are urged to minimize exposure to these volcanic particles, which can cause skin and eye irritation similar to volcanic ash.”
The texture of Pele’s hair is similar to the old pink fiberglass insulation that used to be common in homes, whose cotton candy-like appearance is misleading, causing skin irritation and rashes; if inhaled, it can cause nosebleeds and coughing.
The same misleadingly gentle-but-dangerous quality goes for Pele’s hair.The Hawaii County Civil Defense has warned drivers not to use windshield wipers to remove Pele’s hair from their cars due to its cutting texture.
Hannique Ruder, a resident of Pahoa told Reuters, “This is my second experience of an amazing display of Pele’s power. It’s devastating and beautiful at the same time. We’re all in fear of her power, and yet you have to see the creative force at work here as well.”
For scientists, however, Pele’s hair can also be quite insightful. Geologists can examine strands under a microscope and learn more about the eruption that caused them, figuring out temperature, magma migration, and lava composition. Pele’s tears—thicker strands often found on the ends of Pele’s hair—can tell geologists even more about the velocity of the eruption and the composition of the magma chamber. While Hawaii is quite familiar with the phenomenon, this research is crucial in less-studied areas like Iceland where it’s called “Nornahár,” or “witch’s hair.”
It is unclear how long Kilauea will be erupting, and thus unclear as to whether or not Pele’s hair will continue to fall. The volcano has technically been erupting since 1983 with sporadic periods of activity. During this eruption, lava has been spewing since May 3, when at least 1,700 residents were evacuated. Jason Redula, chief of the Department of Land and Natural Resources told Honolulu's Star Advertiser, “The volcano emergency is an ever-changing situation.”