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The spectacular sight of the glowing lava draws thousands to the Hawaiian island

The world’s largest volcano spilled into rivers of glowing lava on Wednesday, drawing thousands of awed spectators who blocked a Hawaii highway that could soon be covered by the flow.

Mauna Loa awoke from its 38-year slumber Sunday, dumping volcanic ash and debris from the sky.

A major highway connecting towns on the east and west coasts of the Big Island became an impromptu vantage point with thousands of cars blocking the freeway near Volcanoes National Park.

Anne Andersen left her night shift as a nurse to watch Wednesday’s spectacle, fearing the road would soon be closed.

“It’s Mother Nature showing us her face,” she said as the volcano spewed gas on the horizon. “It’s pretty exciting.”

People in the foreground taking a picture of the erupting volcano in the distance.
A main road became a makeshift rest stop as people stopped to view the eruption. (Marco Garcia/The Associated Press)

The lava slowly tumbled down the slope and was about 10 kilometers from the highway known as Saddle Road. It wasn’t clear when or if it would cover the road that runs through ancient lava flows.

Plumes of smoke rising from burning lava flows.
Lava fountains were seen from an overflight at Fissure 3 of the northeast rift zone. (USGS/Reuters)

The road bisects the island, connecting the cities of Hilo to the east and Kailua-Kona to the west. People traveling between them would have to take a longer coastal road if Saddle Road becomes impassable, adding several hours of driving time.

Ken Hon, the lead scientist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said at the current flow rate, the lava would not reach the road for at least two days, but it will likely take longer.

“If the lava flow spreads, it will likely disrupt its own progress,” Hon said.

What looks like flaming rivers flowing down the side of a mountain.
Scientists estimate that at the current rate, it will take at least two days for the lava to reach the island’s main road. (USGS/Civil Air Guard/Reuters)

Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984. The current eruption is the 34th since written records began in 1843.

Its smaller volcanic neighbor, Kilauea, has been erupting since September 2021, allowing visitors to the national park to experience the rare sight of two simultaneous eruption events: the glow from Kilauea’s lava lake and lava from a Mauna Loa fissure.

A young person smiles with their arms raised and the volcano in the distance.
Since the lava poses no immediate threat to communities, people enjoy the place. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

Officials were initially concerned that lava flowing down Mauna Loa would flow toward the community of South Kona, but scientists later reassured the public that the eruption had moved into a rift zone on the volcano’s northeast flank and was not threatening communities.

The stench of volcanic gases and sulfur hung over Saddle Road, where people watched the broad lava flow draw closer.

A distant view of a volcano with burning lava pouring out and clouds overhead.
A view from Saddle Road of lava flowing down from the northeast rift zone. (USGS/Reuters)

Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation to allow emergency responders to arrive quickly or limit access as needed.

“There is no physical or technological way to change the course of the lava,” Ige said at a news conference. He recalls wishing he had that in 2018, when an eruption on Kilauea spilled lava over homes, farms and roads.

Scientists are trying to measure the gas released in the eruption. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

Lava crossed the access road to the Mauna Loa Observatory Monday night, disrupting power to the facility, the Hon said. It is the world’s leading station measuring heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The federal government is looking for a temporary alternate location on the Hawaiian island and is considering flying a generator to the observatory to restore its power supply so it can start taking measurements again.

Meanwhile, scientists are trying to measure the gas released by the eruption.

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