Lava

by Jake McPherson

lava 28 Oct 2014

Picture by County of Hawai`i. Taken October 28, 2014, in Pahoa.

I am feeling some deep emotions this morning. I live on the east side of the Big Island of Hawai`i. This island is the product of five volcanoes, two of which are still active. Kilauea is currently erupting. The eruption began January 3, 1983.

June 27 this year, the eruption changed its course and began to flow northeast toward the town of Pahoa. It is a pahoehoe lava flow and is slow moving. In the last four months, it has traveled thirteen miles and is still on the move.

I do not live in Pahoa or anywhere threatened by the lava flow, but I have friends who are in the projected path of the lava flow, and it is scary to think of their plight. I have a friend who works at Pahoa Elementary School, which is closing today to prepare many of the teachers and students to transfer to a new, temporary campus being built in the parking lot of a high school in Kea`au. It is a stressful time for many people here.

Kenoepoko Elementary School lies in the projected path of the lava flow, and it closed yesterday indefinitely. The students there held an assembly on their last day. I know one of the kumu (Hawaiian teacher or guide to learning) at the school. He said the students were grateful for the ceremony to mark the possible end of the school.

Lava is a sacred manifestation of the Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes known as Pele. Native Hawaiians welcome her when she comes. Another friend grew up in Kalapana, a town covered by lava early in the current eruption. His grandmother’s house was nearly covered, and his grandmother prepared by cleaning everything, saying she had to prepare for an honored guest. Her house was spared and still stands.

Months ago at meetings organized by the county to inform people about the coming lava and the changes it will bring, many people wanted to know about the possibility of diverting the lava flow. County officials and scientists from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory of the US Geological Survey gave clear evidence that diversions would not be attempted.

The most important reason against trying to divert the lava flow is simple: it doesn’t work. It has never worked. The army bombed Mauna Loa in the 1930s to stop lava flowing toward Hilo. It didn’t work. Videos of the 1960 eruption at Kapoho can be seen on YouTube by typing in “Kapoho eruption.” There are many to chose from. When the eruption began, large berms were constructed around the town. They did not work. The lava surmounted all the berms and destroyed the town. The current eruption has produced 350,000 cubic meters of lava each day over the last 31 years. The present flow is producing 100,000 cubic meters of lava each day. This mass of molten rock will not stop.

The other most important reason not to try to divert the lava is also simple: since it won’t stop, it has to go somewhere. Diverting the present flow only places other people in danger. Whose property is more valuable? Who chooses which property should be lost to the lava?

The lava flow is approaching the main road through Pahoa today, and it will cross a major highway soon. Once it crosses the highway, a large part of the island will be cut off from the rest of the island. Gravel roads have been cut through the rain forest to provide access to the people who live on the south side of the flow, but it will require slow driving. If the lava continues on its path all the way to the ocean, the gravel roads will be useless, too, and a third road is being made across the lava flows to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

I have been giving a lot of thought to the effect of what is happening. It has made me think on a much larger time scale than I normally use. I think it’s normal for each of us to think of time in terms of our life span or perhaps of the span of our families. I am now thinking of things on geological time. These volcanoes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean have been erupting much longer than homo sapiens have walked the Earth. We are still newcomers. Kilauea will continue to blanket herself in new lava for many more thousands of years. We are travelers. She is permanent.

Besides time, I am also thinking about space. Space for people, I believe, equals the ground we walk on and the places we inhabit. We think of property as being owned. Pele is proving who owns the land. This is her land. We dance on it for a time, but it is always hers.

Lives are being altered. Histories are being written. We can fight, and we will lose. Or we can accept, celebrate, and welcome the changes.

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