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Mount Kīlauea Tephra - Breath of the Fire Goddess

Mount Kīlauea Tephra - Breath of the Fire Goddess

From one of the most violent processes on Earth comes one of the lightest natural minerals in existence…

The term “tephra” describes any fragment of rock ejected from a volcano during a violent eruption, from tiny particles of ash to dangerous lava bombs. In between these extremes, one finds the most ethereal forms of rock. Molten lava stretched as fine as strands of hair, tear-like pools of jet black volcanic glass, and fragile latticeworks formed in an instant as vigorous lava fountains exhale under immense pressure.

Above: Early morning view of Fissure 8. Lava roils and pours out of the spatter cone into the open channel on June 28th, 2018 (Source: USGS)  

This specimen is a product of the violent 2018 lower Puna eruption in the East Rift Zone of Mount Kīlauea in Hawaiʻi. The eruption began on May 3, 2018, with the collapse of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō eruptive vent. As the summit of Mount Kīlauea deflated, more than 1 billion cubic yards of red hot lava rushed into the East Rift Zone, one of two series of cracks and fissures. The event ended eight months later, capping the decades-long eruption of Mount Kīlauea which began in 1983.

Personally collected on private land near the East Rift Zone in 2018 by long-time friend of the Mini Museum and world-renowned natural history expert, Tom Kapitany, this ultralight tephra falls between pure reticulite and golden pumice at 94-97% porosity. They formed as expanding gasses forced molten lava into vigorous fountains spraying thousands of feet into the air. The rapid change in pressure forces the gasses inside the lava to escape at rapid speed, leaving behind a delicate network of interconnected glass filaments.

The specimen is encased in an acrylic specimen jar with foam padding cut to size for each individual specimen. The jar is enclosed in a classic, glass-topped riker display case measuring 4x3x1 inches, and a small information card is included.

Please Note: These tephra are extremely light and fragile and tend to shed small crumbs of material. This will happen no matter how gently you treat the material. So when handling the specimen, take care. They’re so very light. In fact, it’s a bit mind-blowing to handle them, and you will probably laugh a little bit and want to bounce it in your palm. Be careful if you do this because you can easily crush the tephra to powder. This is all a nice way of saying there’s bound to be a few crumbs inside of the jar when you receive the specimen. No way to avoid this with such a delicate mineral.

More Information about the Hawaiian Volcanism

The Hawaiian archipelago (Mokupuni o Hawai‘i) consists of eight main islands and numerous other features, which formed as the Pacific Plate passed over a semi-fixed hot spot. These hot spots, also known as plumes, are found in many places around the world. In each case, they leave behind a trail of volcanic mountains.

Above: The trail of underwater mountains created as the tectonic plate moved across the Hawaii hotspot over millions of years, known as the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, or the Emperor Seamounts. (Source: USGS)

Layer after layer, shield volcanoes built upon fluid basalt flows eventually become dormant as the tectonic plates shift away from the plume. The plume beneath the Hawaiian Islands is the source of a chain of seamounts stretching more than 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles), and each surface feature, rising 5.5 km from the ocean floor, rests atop an immense volcano.

On the island of Hawai’i, which is the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian chain, six volcanoes have coalesced, with Mauna Loa being the largest by volume and the dormant Mauna Kea being the tallest. On the southeastern flank of Mauna Loa is the youngest and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mount Kīlauea.

Above: Fissue Eight during an Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS) a flight on Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift Zone on June 29th, 2018. (Source: USGS)

Like other shield volcanoes, Kīlauea is built by successive lava flows which settle over time under their own weight. The gradual spreading and settling of the shield opens narrow bands or fractures which permit magma to extrude from the flanks of the shield. These fractured belts are called volcanic rift zones. Kīlauea has two volcanic rift zones extending South and East of the Caldera.

The most recent eruption began in January 1983 with vigorous activity in the East Rift Zone. The Puʻu ʻŌʻō cone formed and grew rapidly in just a few months. Over the following decades, activity shifted further eastward along the rift. More than 58 episodes occurred, each considered part of the same eruption, until the final, dramatic flurry during the spring and summer of 2018.

As noted above, the final event began in earnest on May 3, 2018, with the collapse of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō eruptive vent. The summit of Mount Kīlauea deflated, and more than 1 billion cubic yards of red-hot lava rushed into East Rift Zone.

Above: A partial shot of the river of lava from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) mission over Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift Zone on June 6th, 2018. (Source: USGS)

By mid-May, columns of ash burst forth from Kīlauea’s summit, rising to a height of 9 km (29,500 feet).

Above: Explosion at Kīlauea Volcano's summit, which occurred just after 6:00 p.m. HST on May 24, 2018. (Source: USGS)

The wider caldera experienced a massive down-drop, doubling in size, and the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater within began to implode. By September 2018, this series of dramatic events subsided. The 35-year eruption was declared over.

Of course, this exciting geological event is neither the end nor the beginning of Mount Kīlauea, but rather it is an ongoing story of powerful forces at work within our planet and a stepping off point for exploration. More events will come and there are significant scientific resources dedicated to collecting data and studying the results. We can also look to numerous events captured over hundreds of years in the history of the native Hawaiians and their rich and complex religion.

In the Hawaiian religion, Mount Kīlauea considered home to the fire goddess Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”). As handed down for generations, Pele was originally born in Tahiti and later exiled by her father due to her temper. She island-hopped across the Pacific, leaving a trail of massive fires in her wake. Her sister, the sea goddess Nāmaka, chased Pele, snuffing out Pele’s fires with a vengeance while seeking to do the same to Pele herself. The two sisters finally came face-to-face. Nāmaka won the battle to the death, and Pele’s spirit left her body, choosing a new home in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater on Mount Kīlauea.

Above: Halema‘uma‘u crater on June 5th, 2018 in the background is the expanse of the wider caldera. (Source: USGS)

While Pele has resided in Mount Kīlauea’s most active vent for centuries, she is said to leave her home on occasion, taking many forms: sometimes she is a gorgeous young woman; at other times an old woman; sometimes she is seen with a white dog; sometimes she appears in the shape of the white dog herself. In modern tales, motorists driving near Mount Kīlauea have reported picking up an old woman often dressed all in white, only to look later in the rearview mirror to find their passenger has disappeared.

The goddess has also shown up in photos of Mount Kīlauea eruptions, typically as an outline, image, silhouette or fully detailed face of a woman in the center of the raging flames. There are also warnings about taking items away from the mountain but this ultralight tephra, like the breath of the goddess, has floated far away from the summit and should pose no danger.

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