The Earth is on Fire, but the Planet is Fine
Pele always has the last laugh.
Here’s an idea that’s not very popular:
The Earth is okay. Stop clutching your pearls about the planet.
Let me explain.
My Brain is in a Vog
I know that I told you I wasn’t posting until January, but I changed my mind… because the vog rolled in.
It showed up in Kona on Wednesday as I flew into the airport here. I saw it from my window seat (in coach), giving the air a hazy brown tinge, similar to the color of California skies during wildfire season. It wafted, appearing and disappearing, reminding me of the Angel of Death in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”
“Vog” is short for “volcanic smog.” It’s created when volcanic gas belching out of the earth combines with oxygen, moisture and sunlight. Vog can be a serious hazard to people with respiratory ailments. “We need the Tradewinds to blow it the other way!” a neighbor exclaimed the day after I arrived. Here’s how it looks from my lanai.
Every time I visit Kona, on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mother Nature puts on a show. Last December I saw Kīlauea erupting, followed by a freak winter storm creating blizzard conditions atop Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the island’s two towering volcanoes.
Here’s my photo of Kīlauea a year ago.
And here’s a USGS image from Mauna Kea during a blizzard that same week. Weird, right?
These days there’s still snow on Mauna Kea, but lava is spewing out of Mauna Loa. Pele (the Hawaiian goddess of fire) and Poli’ahu (the goddess of snow) are making a rare joint appearance.
Mauna Loa started erupting November 28th, and the glow could be seen all over the island. The last time this happened, Ronald Reagan was president.
Here’s a live stream:
Follow the Lava Flow of Money
There were concerns that an erupting volcano would hurt tourism as Hawaii’s economy is still recovering from the pandemic, but the number of daily airport arrivals during the first week of December is up 20% from a year ago, though still 4% below 2019.
Governor David Ige has discouraged tourists from cancelling trips, assuring them that Hawaii Island (aka “The Big Island”) is safe. Jennifer Chun is the director of tourism research, and she tells me there hasn’t been a slowdown. “We took a look at travel agency bookings for flights to Hawaii Island and are not seeing any cancellations. Please note that this data set does not include passengers that book directly with the airlines.”
My Hawaiian Airlines flight on Wednesday from Los Angeles was not full, but there’s traditionally a lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, the volcano may be turning into an economic boom for the Big Island, as visitors on other islands hop over for a look. Some hotels in Hilo are sold out.
More tourism instead of less makes sense to me. I mean, why wouldn’t you wanna see this?
A Cold and Windy Morning
Friday morning my husband and I rose before dawn to drive to the official lava viewing area. A friend recommended going before sunrise rather than after sunset to avoid the crowds (a good call). People were originally pulling over on a busy highway to take pictures of the lava, creating a traffic hazard, so authorities set up a viewing site along a road inside a U.S. Army base. Drivers enter single file past activated members of the National Guard.
It was cold. And windy. We left Kona around 4:30am, where the temperature was 75 degrees. By the time we got to the viewing area, we’d gone from sea level to an elevation of 6,200 feet, and the temperature dropped to 45 degrees.
A full moon lit up the volcano, and I could see lava erupting at the top of the fissure nearest the road. The lava is still over a mile and a half away, so it’s not close (we brought binoculars). Vog occasionally rolled in, obscuring my view, and then it suddenly cleared, revealing veins of red light.
To be honest, the lava wasn’t as visually impressive as the pictures I’d seen last week, and geologists believe the volcano’s current activity has “stalled.” However, there are still tremors beneath the surface. “This indicates that magma is still being supplied to the fissure, and activity is likely to continue as long as we see this signal,” the USGS says. “The significance of the reduced supply of lava is not yet clear; it is common for eruptions to wax and wane or pause completely. A return to high levels of lava discharge could occur, and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory continues to closely monitor this activity.”
I tried to take some photos of the lava on my phone, but they didn’t turn out. It’s an old phone, and the zoom isn’t very good. I decided to sit there quietly and watch Pele do her thing. I stayed close to the car, partly because it was so freaking cold, and partly because police will arrest anyone venturing onto the lava — three guys from Kazakstan were busted this week for exploring where they shouldn’t be. Very nice. #Borat.
As I sat there in the vog and the moonlight, I thought of the first Hawaiians and imagined their shock and awe as Pele made her presence known. Some Native Hawaiians today claim an ancestral link to Pele, and they bristle at the carloads of tourists snapping photos of her handiwork.
“Our culture isn’t just about tiki torches and this fake tourist culture that’s been promoted for decades,” said ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui, a Native Hawaiian scholar who spoke to the New York Times. Recent tourism campaigns educate visitors about the need to respect and protect these islands, but there may never be a perfect balance between commerce and culture. I’ve been coming to Hawaii for decades, and I’m only now realizing how much I have to learn.
Not that Pele cares. “This is her land,” says ho’omanawani. “She can take it.” And all the roads and resorts won’t protect us from her.
So as I watched the Earth spew out a new top coat, I felt small. Here I was, standing on a speck of land in the middle of a giant ocean, and half that speck is taken up by the largest active volcano on the planet. Yet on this speck, Creation is still creating. The Earth isn’t done.
And that’s wonderful.
Look, we may kill ourselves and everything else, but — short of a real-life Death Star — we can’t kill this blue rock with a molten core. We talk about sustainability, but what we’re really talking about is sustaining ourselves and the status quo. We may disappear like the dinosaurs someday, but the Earth will still be here, God willing.
(A black and white photo of the blue planet taken Nov. 17 by NASA’s Orion spacecraft)
And this planet will continue to change, with or without us. Scientists believe that Mauna Loa will become extinct one day, perhaps a million years from now, as the Pacific plate slowly moves the island away from a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle.
Perhaps then, Pele will start all over again.