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Mauna Loa eruption no longer threatens Hawaii highway

Saddle Road, the Big Island’s key highway, may not become blocked after all, since reports have indicated a significant decrease in lava output from the eruption.

HONOLULU (CN) — Good news for Big Island residents after nearly two weeks of Mauna Loa erupting: USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory scientists declared a significant slow down in the lava flow that has threatened to block off the Hawaii island's Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

“Fissure 3 continues to erupt but it is no longer feeding the channel going down the highway. Lava’s coming out at what appears to be a reduced production rate,” David Phillips of HVO said in a Thursday morning conference.

After the volcano’s Nov.27 eruption, volcano experts and state officials became concerned when Mauna Loa began to erupt along its Northeast Rift Zone, several miles upslope from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

Daniel K. Inouye Highway, known locally as Saddle Road, provides access between Hilo and Kona on opposite sides of Big Island. A blockage of the highway would have threatened the island’s main and quickest commute and supply route between the east and west of the island.

Although the flow had progressed quickly on the slopes of the volcano, it soon reached an area of flatter ground last Thursday, where lava was more likely to spread out and inflate, rather than progress toward the highway. Since Dec. 1, the front of the flow has only slowly crept about a mile closer to the highway. HVO scientists said the flow was now 1.76 miles from the highway.

State officials and HVO scientists have maintained from the eruption’s onset that no Big Island communities are at risk from lava inundation. Volcanoes National Park has even announced that holiday festivities at Kilauea Visitor Center will be proceeding through the weekend without any changes.

Mauna Loa also saw some unrelated increased fountaining, which could be seen even from miles away on Wednesday night. Phillips said HVO scientists are still looking into the cause and explained that it could be result of an increase in lava volume or a constriction in the vent.

Although the fissure has reduced output of lava, the eruption is still ongoing, and HVO experts expect that we may still see some residual movement as the lava flow settles. HVO had previously predicted that the eruption could last around one to two weeks, based on historical trends, but are unable to forecast an actual end date.  

With the threat to the highway diminished, Hawaii County officials have been focusing on managing the volcano viewers that have come out en masse to see the eruption.

Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin, Commander at US Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area, said that an estimated 50,000 people had come to see the eruption. The Pohakuloa Training Area, usually blocked from civilian access, worked with the county’s Civil Defense Agency to open up a section of the nearby Old Saddle Road to divert traffic from Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

With the increase in people in the area, Hawaii County Mayor Roth emphasized respect for the land and for authorities. He responded to reports of trespassers attempting to roast marshmallows with the lava.

“We continue to remind people that it’s really disrespectful for people to be out there doing those kinds of things, throwing trash, rubbish. We want people to stay safe, some do hike out there. It’s not safe and puts our first responders in danger and takes them away from other important dangers,” he said.

“We urge our community and visitors to take your ‘opala with you when you visit to make sure you don’t leave any trash behind so that the area can be as clean as possible if and when Pele decides to come into that area,” said Noe-Noe Wong Wilson, a Hawaiian cultural advisor, who along with other members of the Native Hawaiian community who have organized cleanup efforts along the highway for Friday to prepare for Pele, the Native Hawaiian goddess of volcanos.

USGS is providing livestreams and webcams of Mauna Loa (check out around 7am on Dec. 8 to see some tiny HVO scientists gathering data next to a burst of lava).

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