Stopping a Volcano Is Not Easy

    02 December 2022

    Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, is erupting again. Melted rock, called lava, from the volcano in the U.S. state of Hawaii is slowly moving toward roads and homes.

    People are asking if anything can be done to stop or change the direction of the lava's flow. The volcano on Hilo, the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, produces large amounts of lava when it erupts.

    Over the years, people have tried to slow the flow of lava from Hawaii's volcanoes using prayer, walls — even bombs.

    A photographer takes pictures of the Mauna Loa volcano as it erupts Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
    A photographer takes pictures of the Mauna Loa volcano as it erupts Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, near Hilo, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    "Some people say ‘Build a wall' or ‘Board up' and other people say, ‘No don't!'" said Scott Rowland. He is a geologist at the University of Hawaii.

    People have rarely had success stopping lava. Even with technological progress, stopping lava is difficult and dependent on the speed of the flow and the land. But many in Hawaii question whether anyone should test nature.

    Attempts to divert lava have a long history in Hawaii.

    In 1881, the governor of Hawaii Island called for a day of prayer to stop lava from Mauna Loa as it headed for the town of Hilo. But the lava kept coming.

    The U.S. Geological Survey tells the story that Princess Regent Lili'uokalani and her department leaders went to Hilo and considered ways to save the town. They developed plans to build barriers to divert the flow and placed dynamite to drain the lava supply. They asked Pele, the Hawaiian god of lava and fire, to stop the flow. The flow stopped before the barriers were built.

    More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, asked the U.S. Army to send airplanes to bomb a Mauna Loa vent to disrupt the lava. A volcanic vent is a place on the Earth's surface where lava or gas can escape.

    The army dropped 20 bombs weighing 272 kilograms, the National Park Service documented at the time.

    Jaggar said the bombing helped to stop the flow. But geologists today are doubtful. The lava flow did not end with the bombing. Instead, the flows slowed over the next few days and did not change paths.

    Rowland said officials could build a large wall of broken rock to protect the highway on Hawaii Island. If the land is flat, then lava would build up behind the wall. But the lava may flow over it. That happened when something similar was attempted in Kapoho town in 1960.

    Quickly moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea in 2018, would be more difficult to stop, Rowland said.

    "It would have been really hard to build the walls fast enough for them," he said.

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

    Talmadge Magno is Hawaii County's director of civil defense. He said Wednesday the county has no current plans to try to divert the flow.

    Hawaii Governor David Ige was also governor during the 2018 Kilauea eruption. He told reporters his experience showed him it is not possible to overcome nature and Pele.

    Kealoha Pisciotta is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. She said thinking you should physically divert lava is a Western idea grounded in the thought that humans have to control everything.

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

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

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    erupt — n. to explode suddenly

    geologist — n. a scientist who studies the Earth

    divert — v. to change the direction of something in motion

    dynamite — n. a powerful explosive

    highway — n. a main road that connects cities and towns