A Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist has found what may be one of the coolest lava rocks ever following a rockfall and explosion at Kilauea last week.
“It’s an incredibly curious thing,” said Tim Orr, a geologist with the observatory. “Nothing like this has been seen before.”
The black, glassy volcanic object is about the size and shape of a Pele’s tear — oval and about a half-inch long — but it is hollow inside — like a lava eggshell.
“The fact that it is hollow is what is really interesting,” Orr said.
Scientists posted a picture on the observatory website and initially described the object as the “Coolest Pele’s Tear ever!”
But Orr, who found the object while collecting samples on the rim of Halemaumau Crater on Jan. 8, said it may have been formed by a different process than Pele’s Tears.
“I have nothing else that I can call it,” Orr said. “I don’t know how it could have formed.”
Pele’s tears are formed when small bits of molten lava in fountains quickly cool and form small, solid glass particles shaped like tear drops. They are often found at the end of a strand of Pele’s hair, which are thin strings of volcanic glass.
Observatory scientists posted videos of the event that likely caused the object to form. A video, taken at about at about 3:51 a.m. from a webcamera on the rim of Halemaumau, shows volcanic fragments shooting into the air after a section of wall fell into the lava lake on the crater floor, causing an explosion.
Volcanic rock fragments from the explosion flew about 360 feet to the rim of Halemaumau from the lake, about 100 feet below the crater floor.
The fragments range in size from dust-sized particles to rocks more than a yard in diameter.
Orr speculates that the object may have formed after the initial collapse explosion, while the lava lake was still unsettled and sending spatter into the air.
“That it survived is pretty remarkable,” Orr said.
Janet Babb, the public information officer at the observatory, said the object is “very small and quite fragile. One wrong touch and it could be in pieces.”
Orr said the object will be placed in a display case in the lobby of the observatory and will continue to be studied.
The lobby is closed to the general public. But school and other groups occasionally come to the observatory for educational visits and will be able to see it, Babb said.
Babb said similar lava bubbles have formed on cooling flows. But she’s never seen a bubble of lava detached from the flow.
“To my knowledge, it’s the only thing like it that has ever formed,” Orr said.
“This is why we love science,” Babb said. “We’re trying to figure out the unknown.”