Lava from the ongoing eruption of Mauna Loa volcano is just miles away from a critical highway on Hawaii’s Big Island. But despite the inconvenience of closing the highway, it is unlikely that any attempts to divert the lava flow will be made, experts say.
According to a warning from the US Geological Survey, the lava was only 4 miles away on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway Saturday morning. It has been moving at about 12 meters per hour for the past 24 hours, the agency says.
But predicting if, and when, the lava could hit the highway that connects the west and east of the island is difficult.
“There are many variables at play and both the direction and timing of the flow’s progression are expected to change over periods of hours to days, making it difficult to estimate if and when the flow will reach Daniel K. Inouye Highway. impact,” the agency wrote in its update.
This is part of the problem with attempts to divert lava flow: Lava is unpredictable and it’s hard to tell where it’s going.
Lava’s “tendency to flow is extremely temperature sensitive,” Paul Segall, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University who studies earthquakes and volcanoes, told CNN. This makes it “somewhat unpredictable.”
It’s hard to say at this point if the lava will reach the highway, Segall explained.
Furthermore, while several countries have tried to redirect their flows in the past, their efforts have mostly been costly failures. “History is unsuccessful,” Segall said.
In recent decades, workers have used bulldozers to build massive earthen walls to deflect eruptions like those of Mount Etna in Sicily.
And in 1935, Thomas Jaggar, founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, called on the U.S. Army Air Corps to bomb the lava source flowing from Mauna Loa, which was headed for the Wailuku River, according to the U.S. Geological Service. The army dropped two 600-pound bombs, but they missed their target and had minimal effect on the lava flows.
Some efforts to combat volcanic flows have succeeded despite the odds. For example, the volcanic eruption of Eldfell in 1973 caused a months-long crisis on the small Icelandic island of Heimaey. Huge amounts of seawater were sprayed onto the lava to cool it, preventing the lava from sealing off the island’s vital harbor.
Segall also said that more and more scientists and Hawaiians are seeing the lava flow as a natural phenomenon — not something to be disturbed.
“I think there’s quite a bit of sentiment in Hawaii that you shouldn’t mess with Pele,” he said, referring to the Hawaiian goddess of fire. “That this is a natural process.”
Uahikea Maile, an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto, echoed this sentiment.
For Maile, Mauna Loa’s eruption is especially resonant because of its timing. The volcano erupted on November 28, Hawaiian Independence Day, to commemorate the signing of the Anglo-Franco Proclamation of 1843 that recognized Hawaii as a sovereign kingdom.
“Mauna Loa erupts on Lā Kū’oko’a, Hawaiian Independence Day. Settler society sees her as a destructive threat to containment, “Maile wrote on Twitter. “This also applies to Hawaiian sovereignty. But we cannot be suppressed. It can be destructive, but it creates life to stand up for future generations.”
“Like Mauna Loa, Hawaiian sovereignty is seen as something to be curtailed and suppressed,” Maile told CNN.
He noted that Hawaii itself was formed as a result of volcanic eruptions. Hawaii would not exist without volcanoes.
And rather than trying to interrupt natural phenomena like lava flows, he suggested people should be more aware of their own impact on Hawaii. He highlighted the petroleum pollution associated with naval bases in Hawaii, as well as the environmental destruction caused by tourism and the November spill of “forever chemicals” at Hawaii’s Red Hill Naval Facility.
“These are forms of unnatural environmental destruction and volatility that should be considered more of a priority than bombing the lava flow,” Maile said. “Instead of holding back the lava flowing from Mauna Loa, the U.S. military should clean up their own mess at the Pōhakuloa training area and contain the ongoing jet fuel and ‘forever chemical’ spills in Red Hill.”
In the meantime, Hawaiian officials say they have a plan to close the highway if the lava gets close enough to become dangerous.