As Mauna Loa erupts, Hawaii officials warn of 'Pele's Hair.' What is it?




 

Emergency officials in Hawaii are warning residents near Mauna Loa of Pele's Hair - but what is it and why is it dangerous?

Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, began erupting at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27, McClatchy News reported.

The eruption is confined to Moku'āweoweo, the summit caldera of the 13,100-foot volcano, the Hawaii Volcano Observatory reported.

Lava has overflowed the caldera but does not pose a threat to populated areas at the moment, emergency officials said Monday, Nov. 28.

The National Weather Service has warned that up to a quarter-inch of ash may fall on Hawaii, warning people with breathing problems to remain inside.

A 7:20 a.m. alert from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory says ash, gas and Pele's Hair may be carried downwind from the volcano, which last erupted in 1984.

Here's what to know:

What is Pele's Hair?

Pele's Hair, a byproduct of volcano eruptions, are thin glass fibers "named after the volcanic deity Pele," according to the National Park Service.

Piles of the long, hair-like fibers can be found near volcanic summits in Hawaii. The fibers resemble "golden mats of hair," the park service says on a page about the phenomena.

"When bubbles of gas near the surface of a lava flow burst, it can stretch the skin of the molten lava into long threads," the page said.

Strands of Pele's Hair can stretch up to 2 feet in length but are less than a micron, or .001 millimeters, wide. They are light enough to be picked up and carried by the wind.

Pele's Hair can form mats up to several inches deep. The fragile mats are easily broken, but because they are glass, they can form slivers in the skin or eyes, the agency warned.

"Caution around the fibers is necessary to avoid injury from the slivers," the agency advised. Birds sometimes use the fibers as part of their nests, however.

Who is Pele?

Pele, short for Pelehonuamea, is a Native Hawaiian deity of fire and volcanoes, Hawaii.com reported. According to legend, she dwells at the summit of Kīlauea on Hawaii.

The goddess is said to travel the islands, appearing to people "as a beautiful young woman, or as an old woman, sometimes accompanied by a white dog."

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