Prayers? Bombs? Hawaii history shows stopping lava not easy

Dec 1, 2022, 4:03 AM | Updated: 10:05 pm
This aerial image courtesy of Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources shows lava flows on Mauna ...

This aerial image courtesy of Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources shows lava flows on Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. (Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources via AP)

(Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources via AP)

HONOLULU (AP) — 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 world’s largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island’s east and west sides. And once more, people are asking if anything can be done to stop or divert 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 declared a day of prayer to stop lava from Mauna Loa as it headed for 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. They developed plans to build barriers to divert the flow and place dynamite along a lava tube to drain the molten rock supply.

Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani approached the flow, offered brandy and red scarves and chanted, 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 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. Instead, the flows waned over the next few days and didn’t change paths.

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 is flat, then lava would pile up behind the wall. But the lava may flow over it, like it did when something similar was attempted in Kapoho town in 1960.

Rapidly moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea volcano in 2018, would be more difficult to stop, he said.

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

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. She said people need to adjust to the lava, not the other way around.

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

___

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

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              This photo provided by the United States Army Air Corps shows an aerial view of a bomb detonating on Mauna Loa near the 8500-foot elevation source of the 1935 lava flow on the morning of Dec. 27, 1935. Now Mauna Loa — the world's largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island's east and west sides. (United States Army Air Corps, 11th Photo Section via AP)
            
              This photo provided by the United States Army Air Corps shows an aerial view of the Mauna Loa eruption on Nov. 21, 1935, captured by the US Army 11th Photo Section. Now Mauna Loa — the world's largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island's east and west sides. (United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), 11th Photo Section via AP)
            
              This photo provided by the United States Geological Survey shows one of the bombs dropped on the Mauna Loa 1935 flow. Now Mauna Loa — the world's largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island's east and west sides. (Jack Lockwood/USGS Photo via AP)
            
              This aerial image courtesy of Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources shows lava flows on Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. (Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources via AP)
            This aerial image courtesy of Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources shows lava flows on Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. (Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources via AP) 
              Lava erupts from Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano Nov. 30, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Loa’s volcano eruption has temporarily knocked off power to the world’s premier station that measures heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but officials said that there are hundreds of other carbon dioxide monitoring sites across the globe. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
            As the Mauna Loa eruption takes place in the background, a car travels down Saddle Road, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. Despite local authorities enforcing a no parking zone in the area near the eruption site, many spectators are flooding the area and illegally parking on the side of the highway. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

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Prayers? Bombs? Hawaii history shows stopping lava not easy