Prayers? bombs? Hawaii’s history shows stopping lava isn’t easy

HONOLULU (AP) — Prayer. Walls bombs. Over the decades, people have tried all of these to stop the flow of lava from Hawaiian volcanoes. as it lumbered toward roads, homes, and infrastructure.

Now Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, is erupting againand the lava is slowly approaching a main road connecting the east and west sides of the Big Island. And once again, people ask if anything can be done to stop or divert the flow.

“It appears every time there is an eruption and there is lava that is directed towards inhabited areas or roads. Some people say ‘Build a wall’ or ‘Plank’ and other people say ‘No, don’t!’” said Scott Rowland, a geologist at the University of Hawaii.

Humans have rarely been very successful in stopping lava, and despite the world’s technological advances, doing so remains difficult and depends on the strength 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 the island of Hawaii declared a day of prayer to stop the lava from Mauna Loa flowing into Hilo. The lava kept coming.

According to the US Geological Survey, Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and her department heads went to Hilo and considered ways to save the city. They developed 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’elikōlani approached the stream, offered brandy and red scarves, and sang, asking Pele to stop the stream and go home. The flow stopped before the barriers were built.

More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, requested the US Army Air Services to send planes to bomb a Mauna Loa vent to disrupt the 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 Park Service campaign report. Nationals. The bombs each had 355 pounds (161 kilograms) of TNT. The planes also dropped 20 smaller bombs that were charged only with black powder.

Jagger said the bombardment helped “hasten the end of the flow,” but Howard Stearns, a US Geological Survey geologist aboard the latest bombardment, 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 did not end with the bombardment. Instead, the flows decreased over the following days and did not change their route.

Rowland said authorities could use an excavator to pile up a large berm of broken rock in front of the Daniel K. Inouye Freeway. If the terrain is flat, the lava would collect behind the wall. But lava can flow over it, as it did when something similar was attempted in the city of Kapoho in 1960.

Fast-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 build the walls fast enough for them. And they were heading towards groups of houses. So maybe you would be sacrificing some houses for others, which would be a legal mess,” he said.

He said he thinks most people in Hawaii wouldn’t want to build a wall to protect the highway because “it would spoil Pele.”

If lava crosses the highway, Rowland said officials could rebuild that section of highway like they did in 2018 when different routes were covered.

Hawaii County civil defense director Talmadge Magno said Wednesday that the county has no current plans to try to divert the flow, though it has had some discussions about it.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige, who was governor during the Kilauea eruption in 2018, told reporters his experience showed him you can’t beat nature and Pele.

Thinking you have to 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. She said that people need to adapt to lava, not the other way around.

“We are not separate from nature,” he said. “We are 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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