February 3, 2023

HONOLULU (AP) – Prayer. bombs. Walls. Over the decades, people have all tried to stem the flow of lava from Hawaii’s volcanoes, which has poured onto roads, homes, and infrastructure.

Now, Mauna Loa — the world’s largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the east and west sides of the Big Island. And again people are asking if anything can be done to stop or redirect the flow.

“It comes up every time there’s an eruption and lava is heading towards populated areas or highways. Some people say, “Build a wall” or “Put up a board,” and others say, “No, don’t do it!” 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, this is still difficult and dependent on the power of the flow and 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 Hawaii Island governor declared a day of prayer to stop the lava from Mauna Loa en route to Hilo. The lava kept coming.

According to the US Geological Survey, Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and her department heads went to Hilo and considered how to save the city. They devised plans to build barriers to divert the flow and place dynamite along a lava tube to drain the supply of molten rock.

Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani approached the river, offered brandy and red scarves, and sang while asking Pele to stop the flow and go home. The flow stopped before the barriers were built.

More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, asked US 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) ordered planes to drop 20,600 pounds (272 kilograms) of high-explosive bombs, according to a National Park Service report on the campaign. The bombs each had 355 pounds (161 kilograms) of TNT. The planes also dropped 20 smaller bombs that only had a black powder charge.

Jagger said the bombing helped “speed up the end of the stream,” but Howard Stearns, a geologist with the US Geological Survey who was aboard the final bombing raid, had doubts. In his 1983 autobiography, he wrote, “I’m sure it was a coincidence.”

According to the park service, geologists today also doubt that the bombardment stopped the lava flow, which didn’t end with the bombardment. Instead, the currents abated and did not change their path over the next few days.

Rowland said authorities could use a bulldozer to pile up a large berm of broken rock off the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. If the terrain is flat, lava would pile up behind the wall. But the lava could flow over it, as happened in a similar attempt in the town of Kapoho in 1960.

Fast-moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea volcano in 2018, are harder to stop, he said.

“It would have been really difficult to build the walls for them fast enough. And they went towards groups of houses. And so you might be sacrificing some homes for others, which would just be a legal mess,” he said.

He said he believes most people in Hawaii would not want to build a wall to protect the freeway because it would “mess with Pele.”

According to Rowland, if lava crosses the freeway, officials could rebuild that section of the road as they did in 2018 when various routes were covered.

Hawaii County Civil Protection Director Talmadge Magno said Wednesday the county has no current plans to reroute the power, although he has had some discussions about it.

Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige, who was governor during the 2018 Kilauea eruption, told reporters his experience taught him it wasn’t possible to overcome nature and Pele.

Thinking of physically redirecting lava is a Western idea rooted in the notion that humans must control everything, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. She said humans need to adapt to the lava, not the other way around.

“We are not separate from nature,” she said. “We are part of nature.”

– Associated Press writers Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.

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