Pele's Hair

A curl of pele's hair
Pele's hair (NPS Photo)
 
Pele's hair gathered against a rock
Mats of Pele's hair near the summit of Kīlauea (USGS Photo)

At various points around the summit of Kīlauea and the Kaʻū Desert, what appear to be golden mats of hair lay gathered on the ground. These fibers are not human or animal hair, but rather a delicate byproduct of some of the Earth's most powerful forces. They are thin glass fibers known as Pele's hair, named after the volcanic deity Pele.

These long, fragile strands are formed by gas during a volcanic eruption. When bubbles of gas near the surface of a lava flow burst, it can stretch the skin of the molten lava into long threads. Strands of Pele's hair may be up to a couple feet long, but only one micron (.001 mm) thick.

Because these strands are so light, they can become airborne and be carried by the wind. They may accumulate in low-lying areas and form dense mats many inches deep. While fragile and brittle, they are also sharp. As tiny pieces of glass, they can become lodged in human skin and much worse, eyes. Caution around the fibers is necessary to avoid injury from the slivers.

 
Photo of a birds nest made of volcanic fibers attached to a piece of soil, placed on a solid white background with a color scale next to it, and a zoomed in photo of the fibers to the right
Bird's nest made of Pele's hair (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park museum catalog number HAVO 318, Bird Nest)
Birds are known to make nests out of materials from the surrounding environment— and that includes Pele's hair. This nest, perhaps from an ʻapapane, is now part of the museum collection at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
 

Last updated: January 22, 2021

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