Rivers of glowing lava oozing from the world’s largest volcano could swallow the main highway linking the east and west coasts of Hawaii’s Big Island as early as this weekend, and there is nothing humans can do to stop it, experts have said.
Mauna Loa awoke on Sunday from a 38-year slumber, spewing volcanic ash and debris into the sky.
The molten rock is drawing thousands of viewers to Route 200 as it passes near Volcanoes National Park, and they endure a thick smell of volcanic gases and sulphur to watch the wide stream of lava creep closer.
The lava tumbling slowly down the slope has moved within several miles of the highway, Saddle Road, which runs through old lava flows.
The route bisects the island, connecting the cities of Hilo and Kailua-Kona. If it becomes impassable, the alternative is a longer coastal road, adding several hours of driving time.
Ken Hon, scientist in charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said on Wednesday that at the current flow rate, the lava could reach the road in as little as two days, although it is likely to take longer.
“As the lava flow spreads out, it will probably interfere with its own progress,” Mr Hon said.
The federal government is looking for a temporary alternative site on the island and is contemplating flying a generator to the observatory to get its power back so it can take measurements again.
Meanwhile, scientists are trying to measure the gas emitted from the eruption.
Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984. The current eruption is its 34th since written record keeping began in 1843.
Its smaller neighbour, Kilauea, has been erupting since September 2021, so visitors to the national park were treated to the rare sight of two simultaneous eruptive events: the glow from Kilauea’s lava lake and lava from a Mauna Loa fissure.
Governor David Ige issued an emergency proclamation to allow responders to arrive quickly or limit access as needed. He has dealt with multiple volcanic eruptions during his eight years as governor, and said it is impossible to redirect the glowing rock.
“There is no physical way or technological way to change the course of where the lava flows,” he told a news conference, recalling how many wished it was possible in 2018 when Kilauea sent lava pouring across homes, farms and roads.
“The power of Mother Nature and Madam Pele overwhelms anything that we can do,” Mr Ige said, referring to the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes and fire.