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Mauna Loa lava no longer imminent threat to Hawaiian highway

Mauna Loa can be seen erupting behind a car in which a man is talking on his phone.
Lava from Mauna Loa is no longer creeping toward the highway that connects the east and west sides of the Big Island of Hawaii, as it was here on Nov. 30.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)
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Lava from the world’s largest volcano is no longer an imminent threat to the main highway across the Big Island of Hawaii, scientists said Thursday, a development that was a welcome reprieve for motorists who depend on the road.

Mauna Loa was still erupting Thursday morning, but the lava that was feeding the flow heading toward the crucial road has been cut off, probably because of a reduced production rate, said David Phillips, deputy scientist in charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

“That’s good news for us,” Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said. Still, county officials said they will stay on the alert — because scientists say things could always change.

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Lava from Mauna Loa, which began erupting Nov. 27 after being quiet for 38 years, was 1.76 miles from Saddle Road, also known as Route 200 or Daniel K. Inouye Highway, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

“So just to emphasize, there is no current threat to any island communities or infrastructure at this time,” Phillips said.

Last week, officials said the earliest the lava could reach the road was one week, prompting motorists to brace for upheaval from a possible closure that could add hours to commute times on alternative coastal routes. But, as expected, the lava slowed considerably in recent days as it moved across flatter ground, leaving scientists unable to estimate a clearer timeline.

Phillips said the active fissure is still generating lava flows, but they’ll be localized around the fissure.

If there are additional flows in the channel, it’s very unlikely that supply from the top will push the flow front ahead to become a threat, said Frank Trusdell, a geologist with the volcano observatory.

“So right now, we don’t expect that the new lava coming out on the surface to be able to replenish the supply to the flows that are closest to Daniel K. Inouye Highway,” he said.

Meanwhile, scientists were trying to understand why lava fountains were higher than usual overnight — a marvel noticed by people across the island, Phillips said. There wasn’t a good estimate of size, he said, but they were at least several hundred feet.

Some 20,000 vehicles have used a viewing route, which opened last week in an attempt to manage nighttime lava-gawkers, officials said.

Native Hawaiian community members planned to be out along the highway Friday to ensure the area remains free of debris and garbage.

“And so as we do when we are preparing for the arrival of Pele, it is a practice for many of us to prepare our homes, prepare the areas where we live, and to make sure that these areas are clean,” said Hawaiian cultural advisor Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, referring to the deity of volcanoes and fire.

For many Native Hawaiians, an eruption of a volcano like Mauna Loa has a deep and very personal cultural significance.


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