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Kilauea lava upsurge dies down; naming new fissure heats up

  • COURTESY U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

    Fissure 8 has shown minor activity since it died down. No spattering or glow was visible Sept. 11 during a drone flyover. Steam in the background is due to recent rainfall.

The dominant source of lava since May from Puna’s volcanic eruption could be tapped out, or maybe it’s only paused. But one increasingly active issue with fissure 8 is the effort to give it an official name.

A state board has received its first application recommending a name and expects a second application soon as part of a process that will involve Hawaiian elders, competing proposals and possibly a public meeting in Puna to determine what to call the roughly 100-foot-tall cinder cone that began as one of 24 cracks in the ground emitting lava and at times spouted magma more than 200 feet high.

Naming fissure 8 has been a hot topic in the community and on social media ever since the spot within the rural Leilani Estates subdivision became the lone source of lava that destroyed about 720 homes, numerous farms, roads and recreational sites.

“At what point does fissure 8 get a name rather than a number?” Waimea resident Bob Bonar asked in a June 10 Facebook group post that attracted 65 responses.

The Hawaii Board on Geographic Names is the entity in charge of selecting appropriate names for new or previously unnamed geographic features in the state. The board doesn’t propose names, but makes a selection from public applications.

Native Hawaiians, especially those with personal or cultural ties to an area where a geographic name is being proposed, often play a key role in offering names.

The naming board also receives input from county government officials and can consult with research experts before making a decision. Board members who ultimately vote to make a name official include representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Bishop Museum, state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, University of Hawaii and state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Decisions by the board are important because names it picks are used on state and county government maps and documents. The board’s decisions also get referred to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which dictates such names for federal agency use.

Leo Asuncion, director of the state Office of Planning and a member of the state naming board, said there is no rush to make a decision. He said the board wants to make sure the Puna community is consulted, which could entail a public meeting there with board members.

The first application to name fissure 8 was received Aug. 3 from a Nevada business owner who suggested Puu Leilani.

That name has been a popular obvious one because of where the eruption began, but also has been criticized because a real estate developer created the name from two Hawaiian words that can mean “heavenly lei” or “royal child” and have little to do with the longer history and character of the area.

Hawaii County Councilwoman Susan Lee Loy introduced a resolution Aug. 9 that is directed at the state board and in part says names for fissure 8 and other new volcanic features associated with the eruption should be provided by community members with direct traditional, cultural and familial ties to Puna.

At least one such group intends to submit a name to the board. This group of Puna residents and cultural practitioners comprises kumu hula Pi‘ilani Ka‘awaloa, archaeologist Keone Kalawe and former Hawaii Community College professor Leialoha Kaleimamahu.

Kalani Makekau-Whittaker, who helped organize the group, said a name was arrived at with help from other community members along with cultural and spiritual experiences. He declined to share the name ahead of submission to the board.

In the past, names for new volcanic features created on Hawaii island did not always originate from local cultural experts.

The Pu‘u O‘o name for the source of lava that erupted in 1983 and continued on and off until May is an example. U.S. Geological Survey scientists initially referred to the spot of the eruption as the “o vent” because it coincided with where the words “Flow of 1965” were printed on a USGS map of old Kilauea lava flows. The “o” in the word “flow” was where the 1983 eruption happened.

After several months Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park personnel suggested designating the feature “Pu‘u O” because lava fountaining several hundred feet into the air had built up a cone around the opening in the ground. “Pu‘u” means hill or any protuberance.

Two years later in 1985, Hawaiian elders from Kala­pana got involved, and the still-unofficial name became Pu‘u O‘o in reference to the Hawaiian digging tool, though some people believe the name refers to an extinct bird that once existed in the area.

In 1988 the state geographic naming board approved Pu‘u O‘o along with names for three other eruption sources: Pu‘u Kia‘i, Pu‘u Halulu and Kupaianaha.

Kupaianaha was a lava vent that began near Pu‘u O‘o in 1986. The name, meaning “mysterious,” was suggested by Kalapana resident and onetime Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park technician John Hauanio. Kupaianaha had been previously suggested by Hauanio for a hill formed by Kilauea Iki in 1959 that instead got the name Pu‘u Pua‘i, proposed by “Place Names of Hawaii” co-author Mary Kawena Pukui.

Names for many old volcanic features predate the naming board, which was established in 1974 to assure uniform spelling and use of geographic features in Hawaii. The board can act on applications to name previously unnamed features or change official names.

Bobby Camara, a Volcano resident who was born on Hawaii island and retired from 30 years of work at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, loves geographic name research and has made suggestions to the state board before. Though he doesn’t intend to submit an application to name fissure 8, he hopes there will be deep consideration and community involvement.

“My hope is that the naming will be really thoughtful and the process very inclusive,” he said.

Camara added that there shouldn’t be any hurry to pick a name, and that many new features including the lava flow channel stretching eight miles to the ocean and other eruption spots should receive names, too. “There’s really no rush for all of this,” he said. “Maybe the eruption’s not pau.”

Fissure 8 has been more or less inactive since early August. But earlier this month scientists reported that a new cone of cooled lava 10 to 13 feet high had formed inside the larger cone.

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