Man vs. Pele

Lava shoots from Pu‘u O‘o on Sept. 6, 1983. Photo by J.D. Griggs/U.S. Geological Survey

Lava diversion largely unsuccessful through history

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Staff Writer
Hawaii Tribune-Herald

As the June 27 lava flow continues its advance on populated areas in lower Puna, one question consistently pops up during community discussions on the subject: Is there anything we can do to stop or redirect nature’s fury?

It’s a question that must be approached from a wide variety of angles, experts say, and Civil Defense officials maintain that after taking all factors into account, diversion is not included in their response plan for the current threat.

One man who’s heard the diversion question for decades is former Civil Defense Administrator Harry Kim. Serving as head of the county agency from 1975-2000, and then serving as Hawaii County mayor for the next eight years, Kim has seen his share of lava flows and directed county responses to them.

In this Tribune-Herald file photo taken in the mid-1980s in Kalapana, tourists examine hardened lava covering the roadway.

To Kim, the most important response to a lava flow is for the populace to remain informed and prepared.

“The responsibility for any person is to be very aware of all the hazards that are possible,” he said. “You have to prepare for eventualities.”

While staying out of the lava’s way is the best method for protecting the population, there have been times when discussion about deflecting the lava has come up, he said. But attempts made in the past have largely met with failure.

“Engineered lava flow diversion in Hawaii has a short history,” according to a 2007 column published by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, “possibly starting with some unsuccessful wall-building in the Kukuau area of Hilo to control the advance of a Mauna Loa pahoehoe flow in 1881, and in Puna to control Kilauea lava flows in 1955 and 1960. Aerial bombing was tried on Mauna Loa flows advancing on Hilo in 1935 and in 1942 without success.” An eruption from Mauna Loa in 1984 appeared to threaten Hilo, and the subject was broached, but ultimately officials decided against it, Kim said.

In 1989, a method known as water quenching was tried, unsuccessfully, as a pahoehoe flow made its way toward Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Wahaula Visitor Center.

If past experience is any guide, Kim said diversion doesn’t provide much hope. In 1978, he was asked to join an international meeting in Paris, France, of emergency responders to discuss eruptions and possible government responses. While attending, he had the opportunity to speak with a man who was in charge of Iceland’s response to a 1973 lava flow that threatened Vestmannaeyjar harbor on Heimaey Island when a flow from Eldfell volcano threatened to close off the harbor.

Bulldozers construct barriers from Pu’u Kuki’i to Kapoho during a 1960 lava flow. Photo courtesy Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Responders pumped about 1.5 billion gallons of seawater onto the advancing flow in the hopes of causing it to cool and harden, thereby redirecting the flow. Those efforts were widely credited with slowing or stopping the lava. But, according to Kim, the man he spoke with said the success of the operation was largely exaggerated.

“He told me, ‘Don’t listen to Hollywood and the media about how successful we were. I don’t think we did anything. What happened was, the eruption stopped,’” Kim recalled.

According to HVO, lava diversion is an option that can only theoretically work in Hawaii “under optimum circumstances.”

“Quenching requires so much water that it may be practical only near the coast,” the 2007 column reads. “Successful barriers and/or explosive-induced breaching would be practical only on flows that advance slowly enough to allow time for their planning and execution.”

Photographers gather around a structure as it is destroyed by lava in this Tribune- Herald file photo from the mid-1980s.

Successful diversions depend on having a suitable place to put the lava, and diversions are only likely to work during shorter eruptions, as was believed to be the case with Eldfell. Additionally, lava diversion can be a touchy subject in Hawaii, where Hawaiian culture places a high degree of reverence and importance on the activity of volcanoes.

“Many Hawaiians were disturbed by the bombing of Mauna Loa lava flows in 1935 and 1942 and by inevitable discussions on the use of bombs for any lava diversion effort; they believe the practice to be offensive to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano deity,” the column reports.

Ultimately, Kim said, talk of bending nature to man’s will is a subject of great interest during and immediately following natural disasters, but rarely does anything substantial come of it.

“Every time we’ve had a tsunami in the past, in 1946, 1960, and thereafter, there’d be long, serious talks about building a big wall in front of Hilo Bay to stop the tsunamis,” he said with a chuckle. “Oh, my God, even if it was successful, who the hell wants to wake up every morning and look at that wall? … Nature will follow its own course.”

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