As the Mauna Loa volcano continues to erupt on Hawaii’s Big Island, local officials and residents are watching the lava flow as it moves closer to a major road and planning for the possibility that highway access will soon be cut off and have a major impact on everyday life.
Lava from Mauna Loa was 3.6 miles from Saddle Road, also known as Daniel K. Inouye Highway, as of Wednesday morning, according to the US Geological Survey. The critical road is the fastest route connecting the east and west sides of the island.
“County officials are working with the state Department of Transportation on a plan to close the Daniel K. Inouye Highway if the lava gets close enough to the road to pose a hazard,” said Adam Weintraub, director of communications for the Emergency Management Agency. of Hawaii. he said in a statement to CNN. “Plans are preliminary and subject to change based on how the lava progresses.”
As of Wednesday, the lava was moving in a relatively flat area, “so it’s slowing down and spreading,” Weintraub said.
Emmanuel Carrasco Escalante, who lives in Hilo on the east side of the island, told CNN if the road ends up being closed, his commute to work would take about four hours round trip — twice as long as normal, not including movement.
Carrasco Escalante works in landscaping in Kona on the west side of the island and said he usually leaves for work around 3:30 a.m.
If Saddle Road is closed, he will have to detour to either the north or south coast roads, he said.
“That’s going to add almost two hours, more gas and more miles, so hopefully (lava) won’t cross that road,” Carrasco Escalante told CNN.
The fountains of lava that began pouring from Mauna Loa this week marked the first time it has erupted in 38 years, joining nearby Kilauea, which has been erupting since last year, and creating rare dueling volcanic eruptions on the Big Island. At 13,681 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano in the world.
The transportation department can provide six hours’ notice of road closures, Weintraub said. “And staff at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory say they can provide at least 24-48 hours of advance warning if lava appears to threaten the road,” he added.
According to the US Geological Survey, the rate of lava flow has slowed in the days since the eruption and it could take at least two days for the lava to reach Saddle Road.
In the event of an emergency, if the road is closed, there are hospitals and first responders on each side of the island, Weintraub said, noting there is already “substantial coordination” between hospitals in the state.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation is monitoring the situation and plans are in place to respond if the highway has to be closed, according to a statement issued earlier this week. The department also shared a preliminary plan for possible closures.
Despite the twin eruptions of Mauna Loa and Kilauea just 21 miles apart in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Governor David Ige has maintained that it is still safe to visit the Big Island. And the park said no explosions threaten homes.
“The explosion site is high up on the mountain and in a relatively isolated location,” Ige said.
State health officials, however, have warned of potential air quality problems, including vog, or volcanic smog.
Residents and visitors can expect “vog conditions, airborne ash and sulfur dioxide levels to increase and fluctuate in various areas of the state,” the Hawaii health department said.
Volcanic gas, fine ash and Pele’s hair (strands of volcanic glass) could be carried by the wind, the US Geological Survey said. A field team found Pele’s hair in older lava flows, the Geological Survey he said on Wednesdayadding: “The hair was deposited many kilometers (mi) from active vents by the blast plume from the wind.”
Children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions should reduce outdoor activities that cause heavy breathing and reduce exposure by staying indoors and closing windows and doors if conditions develop, the health department said.
The governor acknowledged the potential for atmospheric hazards and said officials are monitoring air quality monitors across the island.
“The concern is about dangerous gases from the fissures. And the most dangerous is sulfur dioxide,” Ige said Wednesday. “The observation of the volcano should be done from a distance. It’s not safe to get up close.’
Although no evacuation orders have been issued, Ige said he has signed an emergency declaration as a “precautionary” measure.
More than 3,000 miles to the north, officials in Alaska are also monitoring two volcanoes erupting in their state.
Both Pavlof and Great Sitkin Volcano are experiencing low-level eruptions in the remote Aleutian Islands chain, according to Cheryl Searcy, a scientist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory.
“Pavlof has been breaking out for over a year,” Searcy told CNN in a phone interview from Anchorage. “About 15 months of activity, longer than any of the previous eruptions.”
During that time, Pavlof – which is at 8,261 feet – has not produced a high ash cloud, which is not a threat to aviation, Searcy said.
As for the Great Sitkin Volcano, lava is still erupting in its summit crater, according to a report from the state’s volcano observatory. Searcy noted that the 5,709-foot Great Sitkin has also been active for some time.
Researchers are also monitoring three other volcanoes that have shown signs of unrest, including Semisopochnoi, Takawangha and Cleveland volcanoes.
In total, Alaska has more than 40 active volcanoes that stretch throughout the Aleutian Islands chain.