Why Hawaii Might Not Keep Mauna Loa’s Lava From Reaching Highway


Lava from Mauna Loa’s ongoing eruption is just miles from a major highway on Hawaii’s Big Island. But experts say that despite the inconvenience of closing the highway, it is unlikely to attempt to redirect the lava flow.

The lava was just 2.5 miles from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway as of Saturday morning, according to the USGS alert. It has been moving at 40 feet per hour for the past 24 hours, the agency said.

But predicting if or when the lava will hit the highway connecting the west and east of the island is difficult.

“There are many variables at play, and the direction and timing of traffic flow is expected to change over hours to days, making it difficult to estimate when or if traffic will impact the Daniel K. Inouye Expressway,” the agency said in its update .

That’s part of the problem with trying to redirect a lava flow: Lava is unpredictable, and it’s hard to tell where it’s going next.

Paul Siegel, a geophysics professor at Stanford University who studies earthquakes and volcanoes, told CNN that the lava’s “flow tendencies are extremely sensitive to temperature.” This makes it “somewhat unpredictable”.

Siegel explained that it is difficult to say at this time whether the lava will reach the highway.

Moreover, although different countries have attempted to redirect their flows in the past, most of their efforts have ended in costly failure. “History has not been successful,” Siegel said.

Over the past few decades, workers have used bulldozers to build huge earthen walls to divert routes after eruptions like the one on Mount Etna in Sicily.

In 1935, Thomas Jaggar, founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, called on the U.S. Army Air Forces to bomb lava flowing from Mauna Loa to the Wailuku River, according to the USGS source. The army dropped two 600-pound bombs, but they missed their targets and had minimal impact on the lava flow.

Despite the odds, some efforts to combat the flow have been successful. For example, in 1973, the eruption of Eldfell volcano triggered a months-long crisis on the small Icelandic island of Heimaey. Huge amounts of seawater were sprayed onto the lava to cool it, which helped prevent the lava from closing down the island’s vital port.

Siegel also said that a growing number of scientists and Hawaiians are viewing lava flows as a natural phenomenon — one that doesn’t need to be disturbed.

“I think there are quite a few people in Hawaii who think you don’t mess with Bailey,” he said, referring to the Hawaiian fire goddess. “It’s a natural process.”

Uahikea Maile, an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto, echoed the sentiment.

For Maile, the Mauna Loa eruption was particularly notable for its timing. The volcano erupted on November 28, Hawaii’s Independence Day, commemorating the signing of the Anglo-French Declaration in 1843 recognizing Hawaii as a sovereign kingdom.

“Mauna Loa Erupts on Hawaii’s Independence Day Lā Kūʻokoʻa. Settler Society Sees Her as a Destructive Threat to Containment,” Maile wrote on twitter“The same is true for Hawaiian sovereignty. But we are irrepressible. It may be destructive, but it creates life for generations to come.”

“Like Mauna Loa, Hawaiian sovereignty is viewed as something that needs to be contained and suppressed,” Mailer told CNN.

He pointed out that Hawaii itself was the result of a volcanic eruption. Without volcanoes, there would be no Hawaii.

Instead of trying to interrupt natural phenomena like lava flows, he suggested humans should be more mindful of their impact on Hawaii. He highlighted oil contamination linked to the Hawaiian Naval Base, as well as environmental damage from tourism and a November spill of “permanent chemicals” at the Red Hill Naval Facility in Hawaii.

“These are unnatural forms of environmental damage and instability that should be viewed as something bigger than lava flow explosions,” Mailer said. “Instead of containing the lava flowing from Mauna Loa, the US military should clean up their own mess at the Pōhakuloa training area and contain the ongoing jet fuel and ‘permanent chemical’ spill at Red Mountain.”

Meanwhile, Hawaiian officials said they planned to close highways if the lava got close enough to become dangerous.

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