KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — The world’s largest volcano oozed rivers of glowing lava Wednesday, drawing thousands of stunned onlookers who blocked a Hawaii highway that could soon be covered by the flow.
Mauna Loa awoke from its 38-year slumber on Sunday, spewing volcanic ash and debris to drift down from the sky. A major highway connecting towns on the east and west coasts of the Big Island became an impromptu vantage point, with thousands of cars blocking the highway near Volcanoes National Park.
Anne Andersen left her night shift as a nurse to see the performance on Wednesday, afraid the road would soon be closed.
“This is Mother Nature showing us her face,” she said as the volcano belched gas on the horizon. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Gordon Brown, a visitor from Loomis, California, could see the glowing orange lava from the bedroom of his rental house. So he went out to see a close-up with his wife.
“We just wanted to … come and see this as close as we could get. And it’s so bright, it just blows my mind,” Brown said.
The lava tumbled slowly down the slope and was about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the highway known as Saddle Road. It was not clear when or if it would cover the road, which runs through ancient lava flows.
The road cuts across the island and connects the towns of Hilo and Kailua-Kona. People traveling between them will have to take a longer coastal route if the Saddle Road becomes impassable, adding several hours to driving time.
Ken Hon, chief scientist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said at the current flow rate, the fastest the lava would reach the road is two days, but it will likely take longer.
“As the lava flow spreads, it is likely to disrupt its own progress,” said the Hon.
Kathryn Tarananda, 66, of Waimea set two alarms to make sure she didn’t oversleep and miss her chance with a friend to watch the sunrise against the backdrop of eruptions at Mauna Loa.
“It’s a thrill,” she said. “We are out in the middle of the raw nature. It is awe-inspiring that we live in this place. … I feel really, really lucky to be an Islander.”
Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984. The current eruption is its 34th since written records began in 1843. Its smaller neighbor, Kilauea, has been erupting since September 2021, so visitors to the national park were treated to the rare sight of two simultaneous eruption events: the glow from Kilauea’s lava lake and lava from a Mauna Loa fissure.
Abel Brown, a visitor from Las Vegas, was impressed by the forces of nature on display. He planned to take a close-up helicopter ride later in the day — but not too close.
“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety if you get really close to it,” Brown said. “The closer you get, the more powerful it is and the scarier it is.”
Officials were initially concerned that lava flowing down Mauna Loa would head toward the community of South Kona, but scientists later assured the public that the eruption had migrated to a rift zone on the volcano’s northeast flank and was not threatening communities.
The smell of volcanic gases and sulfur was thick along Saddle Road, where people watched the wide flow of lava creep closer. The clouds cleared to reveal a large plume of gas and ash rising from a vent on the mountain.
Governor David Ige issued an emergency proclamation to allow emergency responders to arrive quickly or limit access as needed.
Lava crossed the Mauna Loa Observatory access road Monday night and cut off power to the plant, said Hon. It is the world’s leading station that measures heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The federal government is looking for a temporary alternative site on Hawaii Island and is considering flying a generator to the observatory to restore its power so it can take measurements again.
Meanwhile, scientists are trying to measure the gas emitted from the eruption.
Kelleher reported from Honolulu. Associated Press reporters Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu and Greg Bull and Haven Daley in Hilo contributed to this report.