Mauna Loa, the World's Largest Active Volcano: Background information when reading The Color of Air

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The Color of Air

by Gail Tsukiyama

The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama X
The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2020, 320 pages
    May 2021, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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Mauna Loa, the World's Largest Active Volcano

This article relates to The Color of Air

Print Review

Lava flowing on surface on Mauna Loa, 1984Mauna Loa comprises more than half the landmass of the Big Island, the largest in the chain of islands that make up the state of Hawaii. The world's largest active volcano, it stands at 13,678 feet above sea level but reaches an astonishing 30,000 feet from the seafloor. To put this into perspective, this makes Mauna Loa's total height greater than that of Mount Everest, and amounts to such a vast size that the ocean floor actually bends beneath its weight.

Mauna Loa is categorized as a "shield volcano," recognizable for their broad, gently sloping mounds as opposed to sharp peaks. This is caused by high-volume lava flows that travel long distances from the point of eruption, snaking across the earth and solidifying over time to form the landscape. This also makes Mauna Loa's summit accessible for hikers, though permits are required and only experienced mountaineers are encouraged to attempt the climb.

Geologically speaking, Mauna Loa is not a particularly old volcano. To have grown so much larger than its contemporaries in a comparably shorter span of time is a testament to just how active it has been throughout its history. Volcanic eruptions occur when tectonic plates shift beneath the Earth's surface and the resulting pressure builds to breaking point. The lava and rocks expelled during an eruption spread and harden, building layer-upon-layer, bolstering the volcano's size and reshaping the land. Mauna Loa itself has clocked an impressive 33 eruptions since written records began in 1843, with experts estimating there has been an eruption on average every six years over the past 3,000. With its last full eruption occurring in 1984, however, we are currently in the midst of one of the volcano's longest quiet periods, with many feeling an awakening is imminent. As such, Mauna Loa's seismic activity and gas emissions are monitored by scientists 24/7, giving locals the best chance to predict and plan for any future eruptions.

Much of the mythology and cultural belief surrounding Mauna Loa centers around Pele (pronounced "peh-leh"), the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. Though there are several disparate origin stories concerning Pele, many natives believe she resides within the earth itself, her tempestuous nature responsible for volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. To this day, there is often a sense of cool acceptance when natural disaster strikes, as many locals have resigned themselves to Pele's rule. Such is the respect for her power, it is not uncommon for offerings to be made at fissures opened up by the violent eruptions of Mauna Loa and other volcanoes in a symbolic attempt to appease Pele. It is also considered an affront to take lava rocks from the landscape or to eat wild-growing berries from volcanic sites without first asking for the Goddess' permission.

With the city of Hilo located just 37 miles southwest of Mauna Loa, its population has come under threat several times during particularly large eruptions. Gail Tsukiyama's novel, The Color of Air, centers around one such instance in 1935, with the looming danger of Mauna Loa's lava flow used as a catalyst to explore the sense of community and extended family that so often ties Hawaiians to each other and the land around them.

1984 eruption of Mauna Loa, courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Filed under Nature and the Environment

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Color of Air. It originally ran in July 2020 and has been updated for the May 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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