Vulkanen Kilauea i 2016

How to live next to the world's most active volcano

How do people live in a place where the question is not if the disaster will happen, but when?

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A new lava flow started developing on June 27th, and had already moved quite a bit when the authorities sent out the first warning.

This summer, in 2014, social anthropologist and researcher at UiB, Eilin Holtan Torgersen, is doing her fieldwork in Hawai'i. She observes how the lava flow is approaching the small community Kaohe, a suburb to the village Pahoa, before it flows past the community border and heads towards the village.

The volcano, which has been continuously erupting since 1983, usually erupts with effusive or steady, slow moving lava flows, so there is little else to do but wait for the lava to come closer. It might take hours, a day, a few weeks, to see the house you live in get overtaken with lava before it disappears.

– The lava is rather close when people start moving away. They sell their animals and their shops, small businesses and voluntary organizations pack up and leave, homeowners who make their living by renting out houses, lose their income when their tenants leave the town. It is not like in movies, but more like some form of controlled panic, says Torgersen.

– Although people are reorganizing their entire lives, and it to me looks like some sort of apocalypse, they are acting very calm. They are preparing as well as they can, and then they wait. 

Bilde av lavastraum som når landsbyen Pahoa,Hawaii i 2014
U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

A geologist from USGS is doing surveys by the lava flow, west of the town Pahoa. The picture is taken October 26th 2014.


The Hawaiian Islands in the Mid-Pacific Ocean are all of volcanic origin, created from the combination of the slow movement og the Pacific plate, and a so called "hot spot" in the earth's crust, causing lava to build islands over millions of years.

Hawai'i Island is the largest island, hosting the world's most active volcano, Kīlauea. The volcano is currently active in two places: at the top of the volcano in the Halema‘uma‘u-crater, and from the Pu‘uO‘o vent.

Torgersen came to Hawai'i first in 2007 as an exchange student, then again as an MA student in 2009, researching affiliation, identity and political activism in hula dance. She quickly discovered how the volcano plays an enormous role in the lives of the Hawaiian people, and was eager to learn more.

Eilin Holtan Torgersen

Eilin Holtan Torgersen, social anthropologist and researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology.

She is now working on her PhD-project "Lavaland – Human adaptive strategies, cosmologies and everyday life under Kīlauea Volcano", where she studies how people settle and live next to an active volcano. Her research is part of the project ECOPAS, which has its research focus on the social implications of climate change in the Pacific Islands.


– I wanted to learn how this affects people, how they handle both slow and rapid changes in the environment, and how they adapt to living in uncertain conditions over time. Are they afraid? And how do they prepare for the disaster?

– When the sea level rises, the Pacific Islands will be hit hard, and the people living there experience the increasing strength of the many hurricanes formed in the region every year. By studying how people handle the changes that come with constant volcanic eruptions, one might contribute to the understanding of how people will handle climate changes, and what they will do when the effects of climate changes are more visible, says Torgersen.

Huladanserar på scena under fra the Merrie Monarch Festival's Ho'ike Night i 2014
Eilin Holtan Torgersen

Hula dancers on stage during the annual Merrie Monarch Festival's Ho'ike Night in Hilo, Hawai'i in 2014.

Hippies and spirituality

Kīlauea Volcano has had a constant eruption from its Pu‘uO‘o vent since 1983. The people living on the northeastern side of the island in the District of Puna, have experienced the threat of lava continuously for over three decades.

People who lose their homes to lava flows, move and rarely come back to the same area, says Torgersen. Despite of this, new people continue to move to the island, where they build new houses on the solidified lava. One of the explanations is the, perhaps not so surprising, very cheap land in the area around the volcano. In addition, property tax is almost nonexistent.

– There are large plains of black solidified lava, with small newly built houses in the middle. The picture with the "for sale by owner" sign is a little humoristic, because it emphasizes that the property has palm trees, which probably were about half a meter high, and a view of the sea, pulling the attention away from the property being located on lava, says Torgersen.

Pahoa, 2014. Bilde av lavaslette med til-sals skilt
Eilin Holtan Torgersen

This property is on the market.

The cheap land and the low taxes has contributed to a population of mixed ethnicities from Hawai'i, Portugal, Japan, China, Philippines, Pacific countries, continental U.S and Germany. Surprisingly many Germans.

– The people who move here are typically what the rest of the population would call hippies, people who are drawn to the lifestyle, growing organic food – often with a spiritual side. The large population mix is a challenge. Very different people from a wide specter of ethnic groups from all over the world, live side by side next to the volcano. There is a lot of poverty in the area, as well as crime and drug issues. There are few violent conflicts, because Hawaiians are often non-violent, but there are of course disagreements. Even though the different ethnic groups are part of the same society, they are also different. The white people are called haole, and can never be seen as locals by the Hawaiians, says Torgersen.

– There were many conflicts during the eruption in 2014, because people were trying to build berms to steer the lava away from their houses. So they directed it towards their neighbors in stead. This of course led to some problems. 

Nevertheless, when preparing for an eruption, she could see how people worked together and helped each other. The answer to what created this cohesion, Torgersen found at the cause of the disaster.

The madam is on the move

The volcano goddess Pelehonuamea or Pele, ruler and inhabitant of Kīlauea, is always present and visible in the Hawaiian society. If you want to understand how people can settle and live next to the active volcano on the island, there is no way around her, says Torgersen.

– According to the myth, when Pele and her family came to Hawai'i, Pele first tried to settle on the island Kauai. A rivalry between Pele and her sister Nāmaka, goddess of the sea, made this difficult, because Nāmaka used her powers to put out the fire Pele dug out. Nāmaka then chased Pele down the chain of islands until she came to Hawai'i, where she managed to dig so far into Halema‘uma‘u-crater, that Nāmaka could not extinguish the fire.

When hurricanes hit Hawai'i, these are often associated with Nāmaka. Since most of the hurricanes decrease in strength when they hit the high mountains on the island, people often say that this is because Pele won the fight with Nāmaka, who had to pull back into the sea.

– Another goddess is Poli‘ahu, who lives at Mauna Kea, the highest volcano on the island. Poli‘ahu's abilities are connected with snow and cold, and Pele has great respect for her. Hurricanes are often formed at sea, and become stronger when they move across warm water. They decrease in strength when they hit land, and since Poli‘ahu can put up a cold front of snow and ice and stop Nāmakas hurricane, she is often rewarded for having tamed the hurricanes wrath, says Torgersen.

Vulkanen Kilauea, sett frå lufta
Janet Babb

Air photo of active lava lake in Halema‘uma‘u-crater, Kīlauea.

– In monotheistic religions, one often has a picture of God as a kind of super powerful human, but for Hawaiians God IS the volcano or the environment, as a force that is physically present in their lives. During an eruption, they might not say that the lava flow is coming, but that "the madam is on the move". If some of the newly arrived people are caught sticking things into the lava, that is really bad. For Hawaiians that is like sticking something into the goddess herself. They have a communicative relationship with the gods, and one must communicate with them and please them for things to go well.

Torgersen was fascinated by how many who related to Pele and felt a connection with her, in the very multicultural society that Hawai's is. This could also explain why the inhabitants of Hawai'i feel such a strong affiliation with the land, even though they just moved there from a completely different part of the world, says Torgersen.

– It is common that people adapt to very unstable surroundings, because they feel a strong affiliation with the place that makes it unthinkable to move. We have these cases in Norway as well, where people live in places such as under the mountain Mannen. But for so many people to have this understanding, when they do not have a long history connecting them to this land, is very exciting. The new inhabitants strongly attach, despite of the unstable surroundings. 

Most of the people moving to the island, adapt to believing in Pele, sacrifice gifts to her, and try to do what the Hawaiians do. A lot of people also say the goddess Pele is a reason to why they are drawn to the land.

– It is a very spiritual thing, which they mix into their own beliefs into some sort of mix of old Hawaiian religion and new age, to understand the surroundings in their own way. The new inhabitants adopt this belief. If you do not believe in the goddess, you accept her as a spiritual power and respect the belief. She is a common denominator, that makes it possible for them to live side by side, says Torgersen.

Bilde som viser menneske med ryggen til på samfunnsmøte i Pahoa i 2014
Eilin Holtan Torgersen

Community meeting in Pahoa in 2014. The citizens are recieving information about the lava flow threatening the town.

- We need to explain what happens to us

Not everyone are aware of what to expect when they move to an area close to the active volcano.

– The ones who have lived there for a long time, are great at helping and explaining newcomers what to do and what is happening. People try to understand where the other person is coming from, and often they can turn conflicts into an opportunity for educating, rather than just throw negativity back and forth. The situation is so demanding in itself that they have to stick together. There is no use in turning against each other.

The volcano goddess Pele functions as a common denominator. She is the explanation that can ease pain and reconcile.

– People often have this need for clinging to a higher power, a need for explanation. It is our burden and advantage that we have this need for answers. When the catastrophe hits us, one could say that this is what it is to be human, but I do not think that is sufficient in every case. Societies that have a spirituality linked to the catastrophe, something that explains what's happening, are more resilient than societies in lack of this. They are always able to see a reason for what is happening. If you are able to do that, you can more quickly get on your feet and move on, Torgersen says.

– That may also be the reason to why the new inhabitants sometimes are pressured into getting familiar with the goddess. They should understand, out of respect, but also because she provides an explanation when a lava flow hits the society. Pele rules the land, and if she wants to take it back, that is what's going to happen.

Kīlauea Volcano is situated in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, and is regularly observed by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO).

– Geologists have also used old Hawaiian beliefs and oral narrative traditions to find traces of eruptions and lava flows. They are always communicating with the Hawaiian community, and respect the belief of the inhabitants. One of course needs the geological knowledge, but different types of knowledge become important in disaster situations such as the ones they experience here, says Torgersen.

– The inhabitants pay close attention when researchers comment on the state of the volcano. Geology and volcanology are well-established fields of science in Hawai'i, and the researchers respect the population as experts in important fields. Many inhabitants pay close attention when HVO post the daily update on the eruption. They learn how to read the maps that are posted, and try to learn the geologist's terminology, who in return try to make the terminology easier to understand for the population.

Geolog tek prøvar av lavaen frå Kilauea i 2013.
U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

A geologist from HVO shields his face from the intense heat as he takes a sample of active lava on the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow, Kilauea Volcano Hawaii on October 21st 2013.

The lava is approaching

Back in Pahoa, 2014. Warnings have been sent out that the lava flow is getting closer, and the preparations have begun.

People do not get insurance for lava, only fire, so the hope is that the lava will put their house on fire, and burn it to the ground, before it is covered with lava.

They can see how the lava is going to cut off the main road. They know what this means: no medical treatment, deliveries or help in case of fire in the lower part of the district. A lot of people quit their jobs when they realize they will lose the roads.

– The lava flow took their recycling station, a house, buried a graveyard and a fishpond. They worked hard at saving the electricity, which they did. A lot of things were happening at the same time. I lived in Hilo and was not in danger, but tried to help out where I could and otherwise stay out of the way, says Torgersen.

– Then the military came to help close of the area. To me this felt like the end of Pahoa. But then it all just stopped. Everything was set on hold, and nothing more happened. People were relieved, but then they just started preparing for something else to happen. They had been anxiously waiting for so long, they could not immediately let go. It was pure luck, or something else for those who believe in those things. When I left in December 2014, it was over. The lava flow stopped right after.

Vulkanen Kilauea under utbrot i 2014

U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Here you can see the lava flow on its way towards Pahoa in 2014.

What is their relationship with fear?

For the people living next to the active volcano, the situation is still very unstable. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) reported in November 2017 of two ongoing eruptions from Kīlauea Volcano.

Still, the inhabitant's everyday life is generally not affected by the fear of what might happen, says Torgersen.

– They experience fear in the moment, in the state of emergency, but then it passes. They might talk about the smell of sulfur in the air, or that they felt a small earthquake. They talk about how acid rain damages their plants, but that is just the way it is. It is a constant state, you cannot live your life being scared all the time.

Lava dekker landskap i Puna-distriktet, Hawaii
Eilin Holtan Torgersen

New sprouts and houses emerging from the solidified lava.

In the global climate change debate, issues often arise as to how one can deal with these changes. Torgersen is looking into three stages of how one handles both sudden and slow changes: mitigation, adaption, and loss and damage.

These stages are common in the inhabitants struggle to stay where they live, even though their home is threatened by rising sea level and strong hurricanes, says Torgersen.

– In the District of Puna, you could often see these three stages during an eruption. Mitigation can be re-directing the lava flow, moving important buildings and trying to protect power lines. Adaption is the next stage, when mitigation is not enough, and the society has to reorganize infrastructure, health care and workplaces when dealing with the new situation. During the eruption in Pahoa in 2014, they moved the fire station and health care centre to the other side of the town, so that people in the lower part of the district also would have access to these services. They also worked hard with preparing old, rougher roads or building new ones, so people had a way out of the area.

– The inhabitants have to go through the third and final stage if the catastrophe is total, and there is nothing left of their society. Then they have to deal with loss of property, their homes and traditions, they have to move and start over in a different place. As an anthropologist, it is important to see these stages in connection to people's affiliation with places, identity, kinship, spirituality and cultural expressions, that also influence peoples approaches to dealing with climate change.