Video Clips: Pāhoehoe vs A’a (What’s the Difference?)

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’ve come across the terms “pāhoehoe” and “a’a.” They’re Hawaiian words borrowed by volcanologists as technical terms for different types of lava. How can you tell which is which?

When I visited in 1986, the joke was that “a’a” is the noise you make when you walk on it, because it’s prickly, and “pāhoehoe” is the smooth stuff. But that’s oversimplified, and it confused me. Some of the old pāhoehoe flows we hiked on near Mauna Ulu seemed pretty bumpy to me.

Pāhoehoe lava is runny, faster-moving, and often described as “ropey.” It’s pretty obvious when it’s spilling into a crater or running swiftly in a river. Sometimes it has ripple marks. At other times, the leading edge slows down and turns blobby. Here’s an excellent USGS video of a pahoehoe front in night and day, May 24-25:

Pāhoehoe moves forward by inflating lobes of lava with fresh new lava from within.

Then there’s a’a lava: a crumbly, chunky mass of what looks like a heap of rocks and gravel and dirt, except it’s red-hot under the outer skin. It moves like a horizontal landslide in slow motion, bulldozing everything in its path:

It advances mostly by chunks tumbling forward off the front.

A’a is usually quite slow. You can outwalk it. In fact, you’d usually have time to pack a small suitcase if it showed up at the end of your street. Whereas when pāhoehoe flows downhill or becomes “channelized,” making itself a smooth chute, you can’t outrun it:

Both kind of lava make crinkly noises, but I think of a’a as “clinkity clankity” lava, whereas pāhoehoe tends to slither.

So now you’ll know how to explain it the next time someone asks, “What’s the difference between pāhoehoe and a’a?”