HONOLULU — Prayer. Bombs. Walls. Over the decades, people have tried all of them to stanch the flow of lava from Hawaii’s volcanoes as it lumbered toward roads, homes and infrastructure.
Now Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world is erupting , again and lava are slowly approaching a major thoroughfare linking the Big Island’s west and east sides. People are again asking whether there is anything they can do to divert or stop the flow.
“It comes up every time there’s an eruption and there’s lava heading towards habited areas or highways. Some people say ‘Build a wall’ or ‘Board up’ and other people say, ‘No don’t!,'” said Scott Rowland, a geologist at the University of Hawaii.
Humans have rarely had much success stopping lava and, despite the world’s technological advances, doing so is still difficult and dependent on the force of the flow and the terrain. But many in Hawaii also question the wisdom of interfering with nature and Pele, the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes and fire.
Attempts to divert lava have a long history in Hawaii.
In 1881,, the governor of Hawaii Island called for a day to pray in order to stop lava flowing from Mauna Loa towards Hilo. The lava kept coming.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and her department heads went to Hilo and considered ways to save the town. The plan was to create barriers and to place dynamite along the tube of the lava to stop the flow.
Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani approached the flow, offered brandy and red scarves and chanted, asking Pele to stop the flow and go home. Before the barriers could be built, the flow was stopped.
More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, asked U.S. Army Air Services to send planes to bomb a Mauna Loa vent to disrupt lava channels.
Lt. Col. George S. Patton (who later became famous as a general in Europe during World War II) directed planes to drop 20 600-pound (272-kilogram) demolition bombs, according to a National Park Service account of the campaign. The bombs each had 355 pounds (161 kilograms) of TNT. The planes also dropped 20 smaller bombs that only had black powder charge.
Jagger said the bombing helped to “hasten the end of the flow,” but Howard Stearns, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist onboard the last bombing run, was doubtful. In his 1983 autobiography, he wrote: “I am sure it was a coincidence.”
According to the park service, geologists today also are doubtful the bombing stopped the lava flow, which didn’t end with the bombing. The flows continued to flow for several days, but didn’t alter their course.
Rowland said authorities could use a bulldozer to pile a big berm of broken rock in front of Daniel K. Inouye Highway. If the terrain was flat, then the wall would be covered by lava. The lava could flow on top of it like in 1960., when similar efforts were made in Kapoho.
Rapidly moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea volcano in 2018, would be more difficult to stop, he said.
” It would have been very difficult to construct the walls quickly enough for them. They were moving towards smaller homes. He said that you might be risking some of your homes to save others. “This would be an illegal mess.”
He said he believes most people in Hawaii wouldn’t want to build a wall to protect the highway because it would “mess with Pele.”
If lava crosses the highway, Rowland said officials could rebuild that section of the road like they did in 2018 when different routes were covered.
Hawaii County’s director of civil defense, Talmadge Magno, said Wednesday the county has no current plans to try to divert the flow, though he has had some discussions about it.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige, who was governor during the 2018 Kilauea eruption, told reporters his experience showed him it’s not possible to overcome nature and Pele.
Thinking you should physically divert lava is a Western idea rooted in the notion that humans have to control everything, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. According to her, people should adapt to the lava and not vice versa.
“We don’t exist apart from the natural world,” she stated. “We are a part of nature.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.
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