Authorities stress vigilance as Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano erupts

Officials say there’s no current threat to the public
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 7:34 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 28, 2022 at 9:35 PM EST
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HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK (KHNL/Gray News) - Afer 38 years of silence, Mauna Loa — the largest active volcano in the world — erupted Sunday.

Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the long-anticipated eruption began at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday in Mokuaweoweo, the summit caldera of the volcano.

U.S. Geological Survey webcams at the summit clearly showed a long fissure erupting with fountains of lava, which was spreading along the caldera floor, disrupting flights and triggering an all-hands emergency response as fissures at the volcano’s summit sent up lava fountains up to 200 feet high.

However, authorities say the lava is not posing an imminent threat to downslope communities.

While some residents chose to voluntarily leave their homes, there are no evacuations ordered and all schools remain open. Officials are also telling visitors they don’t have to cancel their travel plans to Hawaii Island.

Instead, the message from emergency management authorities is to remain vigilant. Officials said Monday night that only one of three fissures at Mauna Loa is active.

“Nobody is in danger at this time. We’re not evacuating anybody,” Hawaii Island Mayor Mitch Roth said.

Ken Hon, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientist-in-charge, said Monday afternoon that the eruption had shifted to the northeast rift zone. That’s a very positive development for communities in the southwestern rift zone, which are closer to the summit.

Lava flows in southwestern rift region could reach population centers within hours. By comparison, it would take weeks to months for lava flows from the summit to reach population areas in the northeast rift zone.

Authorities predict this eruption could last two weeks but stress things could change.

Hawaii County opened shelters, in Kau at the Robert Herkes Gymnasium in Pahala, and at the Old Airport Gymnasium (Kailua Park) in Kailua-Kona after reports that residents were evacuating from the South Kona coast.

Officials said the eruption has been largely contained to the summit caldera. There is concern that if the lava flow migrates to rift zones — or cracks in the mountain — it could pose more risk to populated areas.

“It spilled out this morning, but It’s still far away,” community organizer Ikaika Marzo said. “It’s in the Pohakuloa Training Area, and there’s a flat area between Mauna Kea and Mauna. It looks like it’s going into that area. And probably hopefully, it fizzles out.”

Marzo is well-known across Hawaii Island for playing a key role in organizing community efforts in the wake of the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

Residents at risk for Mauna Loa lava flows are being told to review preparedness plans and check with Hawaii County Civil Defense for further guidance.

Scientists said winds may carry volcanic gas, and possibly fine ash and Pele’s hair, downwind.

Officials urge those with respiratory sensitivities to take extra precautions to minimize exposure. NWS says falling volcanic ash and debris can also render engines or electronics inoperative.

The eruption has also caused some flight delays and cancellations. Southwest Airlines canceled most flights to and from Hilo airport on Monday but expected to fully resume operation Tuesday.

A USGS webcam shows lava in the summit caldera of Mauna Loa.
A USGS webcam shows lava in the summit caldera of Mauna Loa.(USGS)

The 13,681-foot volcano had shown increased earthquake activity in the last several weeks, leading many to believe that an eruption could happen sooner rather than later.

The last time Mauna Loa erupted was in 1984. That eruption also began within the Mokuaweoweo summit caldera, but eruptive fissures migrated rapidly down the volcano’s southwest rift zone.

Fissures eventually opened on the mountain’s northeast rift zone, sending lava flows snaking toward the Hilo area. However, none of the flows reached the outskirts of Hilo by the time the eruption ended, about 20 days after it began.