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As lava flows from Mauna Loa, crowds flock to spectacle


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MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — Neither darkness nor rain deterred dozens of people from piling into cars and driving up a remote access road here Friday evening to witness the earth form in front of their own eyes.

The outline of the erupting Mauna Loa was obscured by a shroud of fog on Hawaii’s Big Island. But a streak of the red-hot innards of Planet Earth oozing down the mountainside in the distance glowed clear.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Carole Higa, a retiree living on the island of Oahu who flew in with her husband Mike just hours ago to see the show.

They were among the many motorists parked on the side of the road up the slope of a neighboring peak, Mauna Kea, to snap photos and catch a glimpse of a volcanic eruption nearly four decades in the making.

“It was really spontaneous,” she said of the decision to come. “Like, last night, 9 o’clock, we got tickets.”

The couple has plenty of company.

With no imminent danger posed by the ongoing flow of lava from Mauna Loa, authorities are busy dealing with a different sort of spectacle: Throngs of people trying to get a closer look at Earth’s biggest volcano.

On Daniel K. Inouye Highway, a key road that cuts across the island — and that lava flow could reach within the next week — heavy traffic and motorists’ frequent stops for a glimpse of the molten rock prompted officials to establish a special one-way route for the closest views. Highway officials warned of $1,000 fines for stopping or walking in another section of road near the volcano.


Sources: USGS and National Park Service

Eruptive

fissures

in 2018

Hawaii

Volcanoes

Nat’l Park

Sources: USGS and National Park Service

Hawaii Volcanoes Nat’l Park

Eruptive

fissures

in 2018

Source: USGS and National Park Service

Hawaii

Volcanoes

Nat’l Park

Eruptive

fissures

in 2018

Source: USGS and National Park Service

Efforts to view the eruption from above were also challenging. National Park Service officials warned of bans on most drone flights within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park after receiving an onslaught of requests from media seeking a bird’s-eye view. Helicopter tours costing upward of $500 per seat were booked for days in advance.

While Paradise Helicopters normally offers tours with views of waterfalls and black sand beaches, all of its flights were being diverted to Mauna Loa.

“That’s what everyone wants to see right now,” said Jennifer Cline, the company’s director of sales for charters. “Nobody wants to see the Hamakua Coast now when there’s active lava flowing down. … Over the weekend and into next week, we’re pretty booked up.”

And then, there is the weather. In recent days, visitors like Alex Tiegen, of South Florida, were disappointed to miss the red glow that hovers over the volcano at night.

“It was overcast, so I couldn’t see anything,” he said in an interview.

Magma breached the surface of Mauna Loa late Sunday night, its first eruption since 1984. While there were initial questions and fears over whether lava might rapidly flow toward populated areas on the west and southwest side of the mountain, the eruption has been confined to the volcano’s northeast side, where no homes or buildings are in the lava’s immediate path.

Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, is erupting. Here’s why and what will happen next.

The lava flow was just over 3 miles away from reaching the Inouye highway as of Thursday, but moving slowly — just about 30 to 40 yards per hour — as it spread into flatter ground, said Ken Hon, scientist-in-charge of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. That meant it might reach the highway in a week, perhaps, though it was difficult to predict, he said.

Hawaii County officials on Thursday established a one-way route along Old Saddle Road, a pathway that takes motorists along the base of Mauna Loa’s steepest slopes. They told drivers they could stop and park along the route’s right side, but only for up to 90 minutes.

“We are humbled to have come together with our state and federal partners to find a potential solution to the ongoing safety concerns along Saddle Road,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said in a statement. “Our teams have worked tirelessly to keep the community safe through this eruption, and through the creation of the traffic hazard mitigation route, we believe that there will be significantly less risk to our community.”

Because areas around Mauna Loa’s summit are closed for safety reasons, the park service directed visitors to areas around Kilauea, another actively erupting volcano, for views of both mountains. Kilauea has been erupting since September 2021, and almost continuously over the past 40 years, but produces a smaller flow of lava than Mauna Loa.

The park service does not allow drone flights over either volcano unless they directly serve efforts to protect life and park resources, said Jessica Ferracane, a spokeswoman for Hawaii Volcanoes park. That’s because of safety concerns for hikers and drivers, as well as for the well-being of vulnerable species that live on the volcanoes — a seabird known as the Hawaiian petrel and the nene, a Hawaiian goose that is the rarest goose in the world, she said.

How the Mauna Loa eruption could impact your Hawaii trip

Tiegen said he caught a glimpse of the eruption while flying to the Big Island on Wednesday, at least — though it took him a few minutes to realize what he was looking at, as smoke and the red glow of lava flows came into closer view, poking above a layer of clouds.

“I realized, ‘Oh, it’s Mauna Loa greeting us,’” he said. “It was very intimidating.

And then, Tiegen was among 50 or so people who bundled up along Mauna Kea’s slopes Friday to see lava flowing down Mauna Loa, “peeking through swiftly moving cloud banks,” he said in a text message. After days of attempts for a glimpse of the first-in-a-generation eruption, on his last full day in Hawaii, he could finally see the lava more and more clearly as night descended.

Dance reported from Baltimore.