Lava flows from the eruption of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the world’s largest active volcano, are making their way down the main highway, raising local concerns on an island with several major highways.
The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed in its most recent update, released Thursday night, local time, that lava flows “proceed northward to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway (Saddle Road), but reached relatively flatter ground and slowed significantly as expected.”
The highway connects the east and west sides of the Big Island, serving as a main road between the towns of Hilo and Kona.
The lava is moving toward the highway at about 0.025 mph, and as of 1pm local time on Thursday, the flow front was about 3.2 miles off the highway, according to the agency’s latest update.
That rate means the stream could hit the highway in about a week, but that timeline could change, according to the update, “there are many variables at play, and both the direction and timing of stream progress are fluid and expected. They vary in duration from hours to days.”
Road congestion poses a problem for commuters, especially from Hilo and other parts of the island on the east side, where housing is generally more affordable, on the west side, which is home to many of the larger beach resorts. . Hilo is also home to Hilo Medical Center, which employs 1,600 people, some of whom come from the west coast, NBC affiliate KHNL in Hawaii reported.
“We have very limited roads on this island, and whenever we lose a highway, it shifts all traffic elsewhere,” Kona resident Mike Brown told NBC News.
Unless some kind of ring road is built, travelers will need to use the coastal roads to and from Kailua-Kona, adding at least an extra hour of driving time in each direction.
Hawaii Governor David Ige has issued an emergency statement to allow responders to arrive quickly or limit access as needed.
If the lava crosses the highway, the Hawaiian National Guard can help plan alternatives and try to create bypasses, he said.
Hayley Hina Barcia, who lives in Hilo and has family in Kona on the west coast of the island, said her family relied on the highway to see each other.
“We think we need to go a few more hours to go the south route or use the north route.”
Sky Makai, a Hilo resident working in Kona, said the highway closure would make commuting “much more difficult”.
“I don’t know many people who commute to work eight, four hours a day,” he said. “So it’s pretty hard to try to imagine that.”
Hawaiian lava flows often move slowly enough to be avoided, but they can be devastating, according to the USGS: “They can destroy everything in their path, including vegetation and infrastructure, which could cut off access to roads and utilities.”
Lava flows can also cause “severe burns, grazes and lacerations when in contact with unprotected or exposed skin” and can affect air quality by causing high temperatures and limited visibility after heavy rain.
Mauna Loa, meaning “long mountain,” covers half the island, according to the agency.
For about half of the previous eruptions, the lava remained in the summit zone, rising about 55,700 feet above its base. In other cases, lava spilled into one of the rift areas and produced flows that covered large areas of the volcano’s lower slopes.
Before Sunday, geologists have recorded 33 eruptions since 1843, making Mauna Loa among the world’s most active volcanoes. It is one of six volcanoes in Hawaii, according to the USGS.
According to the National Park Service, when the volcano last erupted in 1984, a fast-moving river of lava came within 2 miles of Kulani Prison and stopped.
A few days later, another lava flow, which had moved 16 miles in just four days, reached the outskirts of Hilo before stopping and protecting the city, the agency reported.
Corky Siemaszko and Peter Jeary contributed.