under the volcano

Gas plume at Halema'uma'u Crater


Here in Hawaii, normal conversations are often peppered with words and phrases borrowed from Hawaiian, such as aloha, maholo (thank you), pau hana (finished working), pilau (stinky or awful), and hordes of others which I can't remember unless I'm talking to a local. Geologists worldwide refer to various kinds of lava using Hawaiian words as well: Thick slow moving lava that cools into sharply-pointed piles of rock is known as a'a (ah-ah - the sound you make if you walk across it barefooted. Thinner, faster moving lava that cools into smooth, billowy swirls is called pahoehoe (pah-hoi-hoi), from the Hawaiian word to paddle - a reference to the swirls a paddle makes in the water.

[This also illustrates one of my favorite parts of the language: Note the reduplication of sounds in both these words. That's how Hawaiians say very: Just say it twice. That's why, at Honolulu International Airport, you can move around the terminal on the Wiki-Wiki bus; in other words, the Quick-Quick bus.]

Now for some more vocabulary: A portmanteau, aside from being a piece of luggage with two equal-sized compartments, is a blending of two words. This linguistic trick was, if not invented, then its name was coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass:

This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:

''Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.'

'That's enough to begin with,' Humpty Dumpty interrupted: 'there are plenty of hard words there. Brillig means four o'clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.'

'That'll do very well,' said Alice: 'and slithy?'

'Well, slithy means "lithe and slimy". "Lithe" is the same as "active". You see it's like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.'


'Exactly so. Well then, mimsy is "flimsy and miserable" (there's another portmanteau for you).

Okay, now we have (1) transplants and geologists borrowing Hawaiian words and (2) I've quoted Lewis Carroll for no obvious reason. But wait! There's more!

Let me introduce you to a new portmanteau word: Vog. This is a blend of the words volcanic and smog (which, you will note, is itself is a portmanteau of smoke and fog). It refers specifically to an effect of certain noxious gases - primarily oxides of sulfur - that escape from volcanoes when they are busily doing their eruption thing.

The gases form some aerosols and do some chemistry stuff in the atmosphere and, hey ho!, this foggy stuff happens, filled with all sorts of lovely things that either are, or turn into, sulfuric acid or a cousin thereof.

Guess where the vog is (US Geological Survey)

It just so happens that, as I write this, am sitting less than 30 miles from two major sources of just these gases: The Pu'u O'o vent of Kilauea Volcano, which has been erupting continuously (and periodically devouring the Royal Gardens neighborhood) since 1983, and Halema'uma'u Crater, which is at the summit of Kilauea and has been spewing a truly amazing plume of sulfur dioxide since mid-2008. The gases emitted from these vents are generally blown by the trade winds around Mauna Loa to the western side of the island (Kona) and then downwind to Oahu and the other islands, where they form vog to ruin the vacations of travelers from around the world.

From time to time, the trade winds shut down. Or blow sorta backwards (Kona winds). This is, generally, a bad thing. First off, that means all that lovely Earth's laboratory stuff heads our way. Secondly, without the trades, it tends to get warmish. And since we nearly always have those gentle trades to cool us, no one here on windward side of the island has air conditioning. Those of you from elsewhere might not think of temperatures of 80 - 85° F as all that unpleasant. But, my friends, you would be mistaken.

Because there is one further piece data that you need: Hilo is the wettest city, outside of Alaska, in the United States. No, I hear you say, that would be Seattle, wouldn't it?

Pikers, I tell you. Seattle gets 60 inches of rain in a wet year. Here, we get... Well, let me quote Wikipedia:

Hilo features a tropical rainforest climate, with substantial rainfall throughout the course of the year. Hilo's location on the eastern side of the island of Hawaiʻi, (windward relative to the trade winds), makes it the third wettest designated city in the United States behind the southeast Alaskan cities of Ketchikan and Yakutat and one of the wettest in the world. An average of around 126.72 inches (3,220 mm) of rain fell at Hilo International Airport annually between 1981–2010, with 275 days of the year receiving some rain, which is the most rainy days for any place in the Northern Hemisphere and exceeded only in parts of Aisén and Magallanes in Chile. At some other weather stations in Hilo the annual rainfall is above 200 inches (5,100 mm).

We're in one of those wetter areas and, according to the Waiakea Uka station, which is about a half-mile up the road from us, right now, in the second week of April, we're currently at about 46 inches of rain for the year.

As a result, when the trade winds shut down, we get very little wind, temps in the 80s and, best of all, humidity of 85 - 90%.

And sometimes, we get vog.

Which brings us, finally, to the whole point of this post. Really.

(Be honest, you didn't think it had a point, did you?)

We've lived here for over a decade, and the vog that drops on the jungle every now and again has been of little bother for all of that time.

Until this year. This year, the vog is kicking my ass. Headache, nausea, difficulty breathing. Brain damage. Well that's what it feels like, anyway.

We have this little apartment in the basement: A bedroom, a bathroom and a storage room/sitting room. It's mostly used by my folks and visiting friends. And, because it's closed up and I needed a cool place for an Army computer I was running for a project back in the mid-naughts, it has - oh, joy! - an air conditioner.

This is important, because the vog came down the hill from Kilauea looking for me. Personally. I swear it - poison gas equipped GPS and turn-by-turn directions. To my house.

So most of this week I've been trapped in the basement, hiding out from that brain-melting volcanic attack. Me, a laptop, my iPad and, sometimes, one or more of the dogs.

And what do you get when you lock me in a basement for a week with no one to talk to and my brain destroyed by sulfur dioxide?

You get a blog post loaded with trivia and unwarranted quotes from Victorian mathematicians.

Now, stop reading this and go look at these:

Halema'uma'u Crater and Pu'u O'o webcams

And that's all far cooler than anything I have to say.

(image: University of Hawaii at Manoa)


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