Is there a way to stop a lava flow? Officials discuss diversion amid Mauna Loa eruption

If it continues at its current rate, lava could reach Daniel K Inouye highway as soon as Friday.
Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 4:34 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 1, 2022 at 4:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lava from the Mauna Loa eruption continues to steadily flow, raising concerns of potential impacts to nearby communities and begging the question: Is there a way to stop it?

Talmadge Magno, of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, said Wednesday, officials have begun a dialogue on diversion, but there’s no plan set in stone.

“Past examples did not work and we are going to be getting info from USGS as far as scenarios where there was success around diversion around the globe,” Magno said.

As history shows, it’s not always that easy.

A classic example of diversion of a Hawaii volcano was during the Mauna Loa eruption in 1935, when a fast-moving lava flow crept toward Hilo. Fearing that the flow would reach the Wailuku River, which supplied water for Hilo residents, Thomas Jaggar, founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, called on the military to do something about it.

Gen. George Patton ordered the bombing of the volcano in an effort to stop the flow.

The flow eventually stopped — but not immediately. It waned over the course of days and its path did not change dramatically.

It’s still unclear as to whether the bombing actually stopped the lava flow, but scientists are doubtful.

Though, there are some success stories.

Ken Hon, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist-in-charge, pointed to Italy, where diversion efforts were a bit more successful.

“It’s a volume problem,” Hon said. “You’re going to store up a certain amount of lava somehow and the places that they’ve had some success are mainly Italy, where they’ve done a fair amount of work on this.”

“You need a very geographically constricted area if you’re going to dam the lava up, but it’s just like damming water. And they were able to successfully dam it up for a few months, but it eventually overflowed the dams.”

And then, there’s the question of whether man should interfere with nature’s course.

Gov. David Ige weighed in on the topic.

“There is no physical way or technological way to change the course of where the lava flows,” he said. “I know that in the 2018 eruption, we certainly wished there was a way to try to channel the lava flow. As we saw in that event, the power of Mother Nature and Madame Pele overwhelms anything we can do.”