The world’s largest active volcano is shooting fountains of lava more than 100 feet high and sending a river of molten rock down toward the main highway of Hawaii’s Big Island.
The leading edge of the lava flow gushing out of Mauna Loa is about 3.6 miles away from Saddle Road, also known as Daniel K. Inouye Highway, as of 9 a.m. local time, according to a US Geological Survey news release.
USGS officials said Wednesday it could take at least two days for lava flows to reach the road, which connects the east and west sides of the island. The advancing flows “are approaching a relatively flat area and will begin to slow down, spread out, and inflate,” the statement says.
Just 21 miles away from Mauna Loa, another active volcano in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park keeps erupting. While Mauna Loa erupted for the first time in 38 years this week, its neighbor Kilauea has been erupting since last year.
Despite the dual eruptions, Gov. David Ige said it’s still safe to visit the Big Island.
“It is completely safe. The eruption site is high up the mountain, and it’s in a relatively isolated location,” he said.
But distracted drivers gawking at the lava flows could cause problems, Ige said.
“We are concerned because visitors and residents are stopping along the highway, and sometimes drivers are not paying attention fully,” he said.
“So we are concerned about traffic control on the highway.”
Parking along the road is prohibited between mile markers 16 to 31, and any vehicles left there could be towed.
If the highway is closed, commuters won’t have any pleasant options.
Emmanuel Carrasco Escalante, a landscape worker, said he would then have to decide between the northside or southside coastal roadways to get from Hilo to Kona.
“It’s a hassle to drive all the way around the island,” he told. “If the road closes, that would add almost two hours, more gas, and more miles so hopefully it (lava) doesn’t cross that road.”
Carrasco Escalante said he usually leaves for work at 3:30 a.m. to arrive at 5 a.m. but is worried rerouting even then will take him into traffic jams.
The state’s emergency management agency tweeted there are no evacuation orders in place and if it becomes necessary to close the highway, there will be time to alert the public in advance.
‘The concern is about dangerous gases’
While officials have said there’s no imminent threat to the property, a spate of potential health hazards could linger in the air.
Volcanic gas, fine ash, and Pele’s Hair (strands of volcanic glass) could be carried downwind, the geological survey said. A field team has found Pele’s hairs across older lava flows, the agency said Wednesday, adding: “Hairs deposited many km (mi) from active vents by the windblown eruption plume.”
State health officials have also warned about the possibility of vog, or volcanic smog.
The Hawaii health department warned residents and visitors about “vog conditions, ash in the air, and levels of sulfur dioxide to increase and fluctuate in various areas of the state.”
Children, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions should reduce outdoor activities that cause heavy breathing and reduce exposure by staying indoors and closing windows and doors if vog conditions develop, the health department said.
The governor acknowledged the potential for air hazards and said officials are tracking air quality monitors across the island.
“The concern is about dangerous gases from the fissures. And the most dangerous is sulfur dioxide,” Ige said Wednesday. “Observing the volcano should occur at a distance. It’s not safe to get up close.”
While evacuation orders have not been issued, Ige said he signed an emergency proclamation as a “proactive” measure.
The proclamation “would make available all of the emergency responders, should it be necessary to activate the National Guard, to help with control and keeping people away from the volcano,” Ige said. “Or should evacuations be necessary, that would just allow us to act quickly and promptly?”
Mauna Loa eruptions can be “very dynamic”
At 13,681 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa is the world’s largest active volcano.
“Based on past events, the early stages of a Mauna Loa rift zone eruption can be very dynamic, and the location and advance of lava flows can change rapidly,” the geological survey said earlier this week.
The eruption and lava flow have also cut off power and impeded access to a critical climate tool used to maintain the so-called “Keeling Curve,” which is the authoritative measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide and vital scientific evidence for the climate crisis.
The Keeling Curve graph comprises daily carbon dioxide concentration measurements taken at Mauna Loa since 1958.
“It’s a big deal,” said Ralph Keeling, a geoscientist at the University of California in San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“This is the central record of the present understanding of the climate problem.”