Recently I’ve been on an amazing trip to Hawaii. I was planning to write about the observatories there. Then I saw this.

CC-BY Karl Wienand

It’s solidified lava! So… yeah… gotta talk about that!

This is called Pele’s Hair, after the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. Beautiful, short-tempered, and vengeful, Pele will kill you if you disturb her sleep (I like her style!), and made a home of the fiery depths of the Kilauea crater. So it makes sense for her hair to be itself lava.

Mythology apart, can volcanoes mold solid rock into hair?

Pele, as depicted by Herb Kawainui Kane in the Jaggar Museum at the Volcanoes National Park. source:

The key is that Hawaiian lava is typically very fluid (in pompous physicist’s terms, it’s a low-viscosity fluid). Simply put, it behaves more like water than caramel.


How a low-viscosity liquid pours (left), compared to a more viscous one (right). CC-BY-SA Synapticrelay, via commons.

Very liquid lava easily does things we’re used to see from everyday liquids, like forming waterfalls or fountains.

Compared to lava, even the pleasantly warm Hawaiian air is ice-cold. So the lava in the fountain solidifies really fast, sometimes before it even touches the ground. Lava sticks together quite strongly so it can form all sorts of stretched-out drops instead of breaking. Which form it takes depends on a ton of factors: how thick it is, how fast it is ejected, how long it stays in the air, and so on.

If the conditions are right (or, if you prefer, when Pele is so inclined), lava stretches into thin threads before solidifying mid-air.

By the time they land, they’ve become locks of the goddess’ hair.

If you want more
  • Pele’s Hair is, essentially, a naturally occurring mineral wool, which people use as isolation.
  • Apocryphal (and thus borderline racist) legends┬átell of a curse on anyone who takes away lava rocks from Pele’s house (it’s also illegal, fyi). Superstition, sure, but her choleric nature is so notorious that people do mail the rocks back.


Cover photo: CC0 Efes Kitap/pixabay


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