Abstract Nearly all Hawaiian basaltic lava erupts as pahoehoe, and some changes to aa during flowage and cooling; factors governing the transition involve certain critical relations between viscosity and rate of shear strain. If the lava slows, cools, and stops in direct response to concomitant increase in viscosity before these critical relations are reached, it remains pahoehoe. But, if flow mechanics (flow rate, flow dimensions, slope, momentum, etc.) impel the lava to continue to move and deform even after it has become highly viscous, the critical relations may be reached and the lava changes to aa. Typical modes of transition from pahoehoe to aa include: (1) spontaneous formation of relatively stiff clots in parts of the flowing lava where shear rate is highest; these clots grow into discrete, rough, sticky masses to which the remaining fluid lava incrementally adheres; (2) fragmentation and immersion of solid or semi-solid surface crusts of pahoehoe by roiling movements of the flow, forming cores of discrete, tacky masses; (3) sudden renewed movement of lava stored and cooled within surface reservoirs to form clots. The masses, fragments, and clots in these transition modes are characterized by spinose, granulated surfaces; as flow movement continues, the masses and fragments aggregate, fracture, and grind together, completing the transition to aa. Observations show that the critical relation between viscosity and rate of shear strain is inverse: if viscosity is low, a high rate of shear is required to begin the transition to aa; conversely, if viscosity is high, a much lower rate of shear will induce the transition. These relations can be demonstrated qualitatively with simple graphs, which can be used to examine the flow history of any selected finite lava element by tracing the path represented by its changing viscosity and shear rate. A broad, diffuse “transition threshold zone” in these graphs portrays the inverse critical relation between viscosity and shear rate; the transition to aa is represented by the path of the lava element crossing this zone. Moving lava flows can be regarded as natural viscometers, by which shear stress and rate of shear strain at selected points can be determined and viscosity can be computed. By making such determinations under a wide range of conditions on pahoehoe, aa, and transitional flow types, the critical relations that control the pahoehoe-aa transition can be quantified.