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Erupting volcanoes on Big Island spark vortices nicknamed ‘lava devils’

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This image of a whirlwind near the front of the lava flow from fissure 3 on Mauna Loa’s northeast flank was taken by David Kaeo while the volcano was still active. Photo from Facebook

The wonders of weather on the Big Island never cease to capture people’s attention, especially when there’s a volcanic eruption.

A photo shared in two public Facebook groups Dec. 4 and 5 showed what poster David Kaeo called a “small little tornado” near the front of the fissure 3 lava flow on Mauna Loa’s northeast flank. It occurred when the volcano was still active and advancing toward Daniel K. Inouye Highway. The posts garnered nearly 1,000 reactions and generated nearly 60 comments. They were also shared more than 260 times.

Citizen meteorologists were quick to jump into the conversation, calling the swirling white cloud touching the ground a landspout or dust devil and some concurring with Kaeo that it was a small tornado. One commenter even called the whirlwind a lava devil.

“Wow that is cool,” commented Kaline Raymond Toledo Vicente on a post by Mona Watson sharing Kaeo’s photo.

Malialuika Fernandes-Gentry commented that it could be a dust devil because there’s no water to make it a waterspout. But Keith Cypriano answered back with his own explanation: “Dust devils are formed on most times on a clear day. And they also don’t connect to any clouds. That is definitely a tornado. Isn’t there a storm happening there right now?”


“Nah, I don’t know bro cause if you look at it good it’s forming from bottom up,” replied Kehaulani-Rodney Puniwai-Namauu. He said tornadoes usually form from the top down. The only time a tornado forms from the ground up is if it’s a really bad storm system.

“And I have seen a lot of dust devils up there at [Pōhakuloa] area,” he said.

According to John Bravender, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu, the vortices captured in Kaeo’s photo and another image showing multiple whirlwinds near the same area on the volcano shared in reply to his post are more similar to dust devils than a tornado.

Tornadoes, waterspouts and landspouts are violent, rotating columns of air that touch the ground. Dust/sand whirls, commonly called dust devils, are ensembles of dust or sand particles raised from the ground into vertical whirling columns. These types of vortices also can be formed when vapor swirls near a volcanic steam plume.

Dust devils are a common wind phenomenon that occur around the world. They are created by by strong surface heating and generally smaller and less intense than tornadoes. These types of vortices typically have diameters from 10 to 300 feet and normally range from 500 to 1,000 feet in height. They also normally last just a few minutes before dissipating. Like their larger and more destructive cousins, they also can occur over water.

This image of multiple vortices on Mauna Loa’s northeast flank was captured and shared by Janice Lulay in reply to David Kaeo’s post in a public Facebook group showing a single whirlwind. Photo from Facebook.

Dust devils and similar whirlwinds usually form in very warm and dry air and are not associated with clouds or precipitation. They are triggered by convective phenomena caused by intense heating of the ground — which a lava flow could definitely cause.

“There were often several of those whirlwinds observed when the main Mauna Loa lava flow was active,” said Katie Mulliken, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, adding the same types of swirling clouds were also observed during the 2018 and 2020 eruptions of Kīlauea.

Volcanoes can create their own weather.

In 2018, there was even a somewhat rare “lavanado” captured over the fissure system in Leilani Estates. Other weather such as volcanic lightning and thunder, vog and pyrocumulus clouds, also referred to as “flammagenitus” or “fire clouds,” were also observed during the 2018 eruption and lava flows.

The whirlwinds seen and pictured last week on Mauna Loa are included in that list.


“They’re not uncommon because of the extreme heat/instability associated with the lava,” Bravender said. “In fact, on my wall I have a picture that Bruce Omori took many years ago capturing a series of them.”

Omori, a resident of Hilo, took the photo in the early morning hours on a July day in 2009 at the Waikupanaha Ocean Entry, where lava from Kilauea was entering the sea in Puna. Called “Volcanic Vortices,” the image shows seven of these whirlwinds over water near the lava entry and its plume.

Like Omori, those who see the whirlwinds and photograph them are amazed.

“Nice picture!!!” exclaimed Wesley Seno in reply to one of the Facebook posts with Kaeo’s photo.

“Wow! That’s awesome!” added Alex Kahuipo.

“That’s really amazing,” Morgen Bahurinsky commented. “Never seen one on land like that here before.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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