It’s a clear July day in Hawaii – at least, in the area around Kilauea, one of the most volatile volcanoes on the planet. As a photographer circles the erupting feat of nature in a helicopter, he gazes into its belly – and what he sees almost blows him away.
Kilauea can be found along Hawaii’s south shore and represents a fifth of the volcanoes that make up the island state. And it’s pretty old, too, since it’s thought to have originated anywhere from 300,000 to 600,000 years ago.
What’s more, Kilauea has been erupting continuously for over 30 years. That makes it among the most active volcanoes on Earth – so its name, which translates to “spewing” in the Hawaiian language, is particularly fitting.
And while all eruptions of the volcano recorded within nearly the last 200 years mark it out as relatively docile, geological evidence shows that Kilauea was once actually prone to more violent, explosive activity further back in time. Indeed, in 1790 a massive eruption caused the deaths of at least 80 people – or perhaps even hundreds.
If the volcano’s explosive nature was to return today, then, anyone living on the island would be at far greater risk. Still, it’s far from a slouch: by the beginning of 2011 Kilauea’s recorded eruption activity had produced a whole cubic mile of lava.
Standing 4,190 feet above sea level, the shield-type volcano comprises around 14 percent of the so-called Big Island. Some of the lava covering its surface, meanwhile, is said to have been produced 2,800 years ago.
And Kilauea’s current lava flow spews from the Pu’u ’Ō’ō vent and has stretched to six and a half miles long. It’s been slowly making its way down the volcano’s south side since May 2016.
However, in June 2016 the flow reached the Pacific Ocean for the first time in three years. At the point where the lava flows into the sea, moreover, it reaches a truly impressive width of around 66 feet.
And come July 2016 Mick Kalber of Tropical Visions Video was circling Kilauea in a helicopter, recording its eruption and the lava flow. But when he peered inside the volcano, he was astonished by what he saw.
That’s because staring up at Kalber was what looked to be the world’s largest smiley face emoji. Indeed, the lava had somehow perfectly taken on the form of two eyes and a smile.
Located within a lava lake crater on the western side of the Pu’u ’Ō’ō vent, the smiley face would certainly have made for a welcome surprise for Kalber. It’s almost like the volcano was pleased to see him!
But while the face might seem like a miracle or even an act of divine intervention, science has an altogether more prosaic explanation for its existence. In fact, the event is altogether relatively normal.
According to LiveScience, fiery, brighter-hued spots are often created on the volcano’s dark lake surface. These spots, which make up the face’s “eyes,” are the result of the lava flowing around and spattering.
Meanwhile, the volcano’s surface – which isn’t entirely solid – can easily break apart through the natural passage of the lava flow. This is how lines, like the smile in the giant burning emoji, are created.
While both these events are normal, however, it was pure chance that caused them both to happen in exactly the right way for the “smile” to appear. In fact, you might say that it was a happy coincidence.
Indeed, Janet Babb, a geologist from the U.S. Geological Service’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, told LiveScience, “The Pu’u ’Ō’ō lava lake just happened to produce two spattering sources that have been interpreted as “eyes” and an incandescent line that has been interpreted as a “mouth.””
And while the volcano’s smile is a true marvel of nature, it’s not the first instance of an emoji apparently appearing from nowhere. In 2015, for example, a “smiling” galaxy was found by the Hubble telescope, caused by the bending of light through a process known as gravitational lensing.
Even as far back as 1999, moreover, smiley faces were being spotted in space. The Red Planet’s Galle Crater was given the moniker of the “happy face crater” after being spotted by the Mars Orbiter Camera.
Even more interestingly, a University of Toronto study proved that humans are particularly prone to seeing faces in inanimate objects – whether it’s Jesus on a pancake or Madonna on a slice of toast. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to be able to see the volcano’s bright smile.
Even if it’s just a happy coincidence that Kilauea’s lava flow birthed an enormous grin, it’s still a true wonder of nature. And there’s absolutely no way Mick Kalber could have expected to see it when he journeyed out in his helicopter that day – so it’s a good thing he was carrying his camera!