Strands of Volcanic Glass Called ‘Pele’s Hair’ Rain Down on Hawaii Residents

The eruption of the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano has caused “Pele’s hair,” a type of volcanic glass that resembles spun sugar, to rain down on Pāhoa residents.
May 30, 2018, 3:00pm
Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele. Image: Flickr/Ron Cogswell

A fissure from Hawaii’s erupting volcano Kilauea reopened on Monday, spewing fountains of lava 200 feet into the air and creating a phenomenon called “Pele’s hair”—thin strands of volcanic glass that can be harmful if touched or inhaled, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Volcanic glass from the fissure is blowing downwind, where the USGS has urged people “to minimize exposure to these volcanic particles, which can cause skin and eye irritation similar to volcanic ash.” Residents should also avoid touching Pele’s hair, Hawaii County Civil Defense said.

Closeup of Pele's hair. Image: Wikimedia Commons

“This is pretty crazy because we never did see Pele’s hair fall in Pāhoa in all my life,” Big Island local Ikaika Marzo said Monday on Facebook Live.

“But it’s all over my truck, and also all the vehicles here… I would recommend everyone to wear a particle mask right now,” Marzo added.

Pele’s hair is formed when volcanic glass is ejected, stretched, and cooled (think of spun sugar). It’s named for the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pelehonuamea, or Pele—a capricious deity who, according to legend, resides in Kilauea’s Halemaʻumaʻu crater. Pele is shown in modern art with black or red hair, symbolizing her oneness with the lava flows she creates, but the geological version is actually a golden color.

Pele's hair on a radio antenna mounted near Kilauea's Puʻu ʻOʻo. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pele’s hair isn’t unique to Hawaii, and various mythologies have been crafted around its occurrence in other places. In Iceland, for example, it’s called nornahár, or “witches’ hair.” Another similar phenomenon, “Pele’s tears,” refers to small droplets of volcanic glass that are frequently found tangled in the fiberglass strands.

The eruption has destroyed at least 10 homes, and has created a 2,400-acre lava field across the southeastern side of the island. Roughly 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes since it began on May 3. Emergency responders are also concerned with toxic plumes of ash and sulfur dioxide gas that pose a threat to human health.