Hawaii volcano: State activates National Guard as unpredictable Mauna Loa lava spreads toward key highway


The relentless eruption of the world’s largest active volcano prompted the intervention of the Hawaii National Guard as residents and tourists flocked to the area.

For 10 days, Mauna Loa has been spewing lava into the sky and beneath its massive peak. While officials say there is still no immediate risk to communities on the Big Island, the lava has now spread to within 2 miles of the main highway that connects the East and West halves of the Big Island.

“The front of the lava flow continues to move with minimal movement … approximately 2 miles from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway,” the Hawaii County Disasters website said Tuesday morning. “At this time it does not pose a threat to any community.”

Mauna Loa began erupting on Nov. 27, about 21 miles from where Kilauea has been erupting since last year. As residents and tourists scramble to witness and commemorate the rare double eruption, officials have enlisted the help of the National Guard.

“Government. David Iger and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara activated 20 Hawaii National Guard service members on Monday and placed them on active duty to assist Hawaii County with traffic control and other duties during the Mauna Loa eruption,” emergency management says on Monday.

Officials also created a safety observation point on the accessible one-way route of the Daniel K. Inouye Freeway, the Hawaii County Civil Defense said.

The speed of the lava flow is erratic, so it is difficult to predict exactly when the lava will hit the main highway (also known as the Saddle Road).

“There are many variables at play, and the direction and timing of the flow can be expected to change over hours to days, making it difficult to estimate when or if the flow will impact the Daniel K. Inouye Highway,” the USGS said.

Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984, when its lava was about 4.5 miles from Hilo, the Big Island’s largest population center.

Whether or when lava from the current eruption reaches key highways depends largely on the timing of the Mauna Loa eruption, a volcano expert said.

“We don’t know how long this eruption will last, and that will determine whether there is a greater threat to the highway,” said Natalia Deligne, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory.

Mauna Loa and Kilauea are in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which remains open as it urges viewers to watch both eruptions safely.

“Into week two of Mauna Loa’s eruption,” the park posted on Facebook Monday. “Two volcanoes, two eruptions, one park. Another ‘brilliant’ morning today!”

Fountains and flows of lava lit up the sky near Mauna Loa Monday.

While some see the Big Island’s eruptions as a threat, for many Native Hawaiians the eruptions have incredible spiritual significance.

Ku’ulei Vickery, a Native Hawaiian and teacher at a nearby public school, was among those who witnessed the glowing orange lava flow on Friday. She sang a traditional Hawaiian hymn and left an offering of rosemary from her backyard.

“As a native, I acknowledge the space I’m in. I want to thank Goddess Pele, and those who came before me, my ancestors,” she said. “You can’t go to anybody’s house empty-handed. So that’s what I brought.”

Officials are urging anyone who wants to watch both eruptions to be aware of possible health hazards in the air.

Volcanic emissions include sulfur dioxide, which reacts with other elements in the atmosphere and can start to form fine particles that cause moisture, a form of volcanic air pollution known as volcanic smog.

“The moisture could pose an airborne health hazard to residents and visitors, damage crops and other vegetation, and affect livestock farming,” the USGS said.

Lava spewed from a fissure on Mauna Loa on Monday.

Vulnerable groups, often including the elderly and children, should be careful when watching the double eruption, the National Park Service said.

“People with pre-existing respiratory conditions are particularly sensitive to poor air quality and should check air quality alerts before visiting,” the park service said.

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