Hawaii: tectonics & Pele.

Hawaii: tectonics & Pele.

Amid the flower leis and mai tais.


I plead guilty. I bought into the beach resort stereotype.

Since I can remember, Hawaii has been little more to me than a long-haul holiday destination where one goes to roast on a beach. But then I clicked. Like that day when someone, whom I had passively known for some time, suddenly, appeared to me in a different light, making a more vibrant and definite impression on me. Vivid memories carve themselves deeply into the mind, and they stick. Here is a glimpse into the facts that shaped the top-right graphic of the Royale Map of Hawaii and contributed to my infatuation with the faraway archipelago.

The birth of an archipelago. 

In high school, I was never particularly attentive during geography lessons. Blame my doodling and the windows. However, Caroline, one of my best friends, had plans to become a vulcanologist, and sleepovers at her house included documentaries about the Etna or the Stromboli. Hence I wasn't volcanologically clueless before diving into the Map of Hawaii but what I learned still blew my socks off.

The main purpose of the top-right illustration is to explain how the Hawaiian Islands came to be. I promise I'll try to bore you less than my Geography teacher did me. Bear with.

The lithosphere is the outer shell of our Earth and it is subdivided into seven major tectonic plates. The whole Hawaiian archipelago rests on one of those tectonic plates: the Pacific plate. Below the lithosphere is the asthenosphere which is a soft mantle, made of solid rocks, and it moves very slowly under the lithosphere. Because of its flexibility, the asthenosphere gently tows the Earth's tectonic plates one way or another. Every year, the asthenosphere drags the Pacific plate 3 inches further to the North West.

Below the Pacific plate is a hot spot, a sort of deep well that allows magma from the Earth’s core to surface.  The hot-spot regularly ejects magma, which turns into lava as it emerges.

The hot spot is fixed, unlike Earth's tectonic plates. So, whilst the Pacific plate moves North Westerly, the hot spot, unmovable, continues to eject magma upwards. Every island of the Hawaiian archipelago once found itself under this hot-spot zone, where they were created. Then, slowly, they were moved along by the asthenosphere, for the next island to be created.

It implies that the Hawaiian islands get younger as you move South Easterly. The baby in the family is Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island.

Currently, the Big Island is sitting above the hot-spot and is expanding with every large eruption. But as the Pacific plate is shifted, the next in line to throne above the hot-spot will be Lo’ihi, a small seamount (975m below sea level), which, as it grows, should eventually become Hawaii’s newest Island.

But Hawaii isn't just about mechanics, it is also about folklore.

Endlessly burning.

Fire, uncontrolled, is dangerously ravenous, its nature is to consume. When Earth’s bowels shatter the ground to pieces to surface, they ravage mercilessly. In Hawaii, this is a regular occurrence.

The Hawaiian people have great respect for volcanic eruptions and many attribute the phenomenon to Pele, the goddess of fire, the woman who devours land.

Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of fire, wearing a crown of 'Ohi'a flowers.

In Hawaii, it is believed that Pele is endlessly burning, yearning for her lover to be near her. Volcanic eruptions are a manifestation of her longing. The legend of Pele is a romantic way of looking at something otherwise life-threatening because when Pele opens the rift between two worlds, she burns and buries all.

Alone, for 5 million years.

The destruction of fauna and flora is very sad here as Hawaii supports unique habitats. Taking into consideration that the oldest Islands of Hawaii have enjoyed almost 5 million years of isolation, it is easy to understand how special its wildlife is.

A staggering 40% of all Hawaii’s animals and plants are endemic. (Endemic from the greek endemos = native. Used to describe animals that are native to a place and exist nowhere else in the world)

Consequently, much of Hawaii’s fauna and flora are classed as endangered, and if Pele eliminates a forest under 10 meters of lava, the habitat supporting these rare lifeforms is gone.

These endemic creatures don't possess our adaptive or mobile qualities, and so they have no choice but to exist where they always have. But it begs the question of why the Hawaiian people would accept to live under Pele's callous ruling and continue to precariously settle near volcanoes.

After the everlasting hours of destruction...

The lava that just scorched the land glimmers to settle, cools, solidifies, and turns to basalt. Basalt is known to have one of the highest mineral contents and fertile soil is made of just that; microorganisms and minerals galore.

Health hazards increase dangerously near volcanoes, yet humans throughout the ages have settled near them for good reason: the most productive soils on our planet are found near active volcanoes.

The basalt formed by the lava is quick to weather and decompose, it guarantees highly fertile grounds where anything will grow well and fast.

What Pele has taken, she'll give back tenfold.

I wanted to illustrate a cycle that ends in life. The 'Ohi'a tree was perfect for this: it is the first to colonise new lava flows and it is sacred to Pele. In Hawaiian folklore, Pele is said to have fallen for 'Ohi'a, a handsome warrior. She proposed to him and was deeply vexed when 'Ohi'a, who was already engaged to a mortal woman named Lehua, refused her.

Pele could not stop her fantasy for 'Ohi'a. She found herself losing control and turned 'Ohi'a into a twisted tree whose roots would forever depend on her. Lehua, having lost her love, cried a river and called out to the other Gods. The general feeling amongst the Gods was that Pele might have had overreacted, so they agreed to help Lehua. To reunite the lovers, the Gods turned Lehua into a blossom that would grow right beside 'Ohi'a. The Hawaiians will tell you not to pick a flower from the 'Ohi'a tree, or it will rain since you're not just picking a flower, you are separating lovers. They'll often be right: the Islands of Kauai and Maui are two of the rainiest places on Earth!

The 'Ohi'a tree I drew on the map is a nod to the passionate Pele and a reminder of Hawaii's fertility.

Catherine x

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