With seismic activity remaining above normal background levels, officials are working on evacuation planning for the world’s largest active volcano: Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. While the USGS and the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO) makes it clear that Mauna Loa is not erupting right now or is expected to erupt in the immediate future, it is clear an eruption is inevitable at the massive volcano. David Lopez, the man driving the evacuation planning process for Hawaii, was the former Hurricane Program Manager; Lopez now serves as Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s (HI-EMA) Executive Officer. The hope is to have a plan in place by December –and hopefully in place before Mauna Loa does erupt and spew lava into communities on the island.
Mauna Loa is considered the largest active volcano on Earth, rising to 13,681 feet above sea level. Mauna Loa rises up from the ocean floor of the Central Pacific at a depth of about 3 miles. Because of the volcano’s significant mass, the ocean floor directly beneath Mauna Loa is depressed by another 5 miles. According to USGS, this places Mauna Loa’s summit about 56,000 feet above its base; the enormous volcano covers half of the island of Hawaii, also known simply as the “Big Island of Hawaii.”
Mauna Loa eruptions tend to produce voluminous, fast-moving lava flows that can impact communities on the east and west sides of the Big Island from Kona to Hilo. Since the 1850s, Hilo in eastern Hawaii has been threatened by 7 Mauna Loa lava flows. On the south and west sides of the island, Mauna Loa lava flows have reached the coast there 8 times: in 1859, 1868, 1887, 1926, 1919, and three times in 1950.
While nearby Kilauea Volcano is currently erupting, with lava contained to a growing lava lake deep within its summit caldera, Mauna Loa Volcano is not erupting. But while it isn’t erupting, rates of seismicity at the summit remain slightly above long-term background levels. While other monitoring data streams—ground deformation, gas discharge, and visual observations—show no significant changes, the volcanic mountain has been rumbling a bit in recent days and weeks.
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According to the last weekly update released by HVO, seismometers recorded 84 small-magnitude earthquakes beneath the summit and upper-elevation flanks of Mauna Loa last week. The majority of those earthquakes occurred at shallow depths of less than 5 miles below sea-level; all of the earthquakes were under a magnitude 3.0 rating. HVO adds that webcam views have shown no changes to the landscape at the Mauna Loa summit or on the lower flanks of the volcano over the past week.
Nevertheless, state, county, and local officials are working on a comprehensive plan to protect residents and visitors on Hawaii’s Big Island from the day Mauna Loa blows its top. Such an eruption could be weeks away or months away or longer; scientists aren’t able to pin point future eruptions yet. Nor can they forecast where around the volcano the eruption could occur. In past Mauna Loa eruptions, fissures have opened in its summit caldera, but fissures have also developed along its rift zones on the giant mountain’s flanks.
Right now, the USGS has Mauna Loa at a somewhat elevated “Advisory” alert level, with a “Yellow” color code. The Volcano Hazards Program Office, through regional groups responsible for volcanoes of concern within their geographic area of concern, is responsible for issuing Aviation Codes and Volcanic Activity Alert Levels. Aviation Codes are green, yellow, orange, or red. When ground-based instrumentation is insufficient to establish that a volcano is at a typical background level of activity, it is simply “unassigned.” While green means typical activity associated with a non-eruptive state, yellow means a volcano is exhibiting signs of elevated unrest above known background levels. When a volcano exhibits heightened or escalating unrest with the increased potential of eruption, it jumps to orange. Finally, when an eruption is imminent with significant emission of volcanic ash expected in the atmosphere or an eruption is underway with significant emission of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, the code becomes red. Volcanic Activity Alert levels are normal, advisory, watch, or warning. As with aviation codes, if data is insufficient, it is simply labeled as “unassigned.” When the volcano is at typical background activity in a non-eruptive state, it is considered normal. If the volcano exhibits signs of elevated unrest above background level, an advisory is issued. If a volcano exhibits heightened or escalating unrest, a watch is issued while a warning is issued when a hazardous eruption is imminent.
Lopez tells us that planning for a volcano isn’t too different from planning for a hurricane. “There are many more similarities than differences,” Lopez said. “The biggest difference is that a volcano has the possibility of generating an earthquake and/or a tsunami which may very rapidly turn a local disaster into a statewide disaster.”
Lopez also described to us, as with a complex landfalling hurricane situation, you need to plan for cascading impacts from an active lava flow too. “We look at issues by critical systems, from an interdependency standpoint, and then determine cascading impacts. Plans are developed to bring the critical systems back on line; more emphasis is on bringing a system back than on what may have caused this system to fail: the question is the level of failure. The level of failure then generates a response plan to recover the system, or in a catastrophic failure an alternate method of making the system work.”
Planning for Mauna Loa’s next eruption is also a complex process requiring the participation of many stakeholders. Beyond HI-EMA, HVO/USGS, and Hawaii County Government of which the Big Island is entirely a part of, Lopez says many stakeholders are involved in the evacuation planning process. “This can range from police and fire, to the American Red Cross, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, DoE (Department of Education) for shelters and education issues, and any group/organization that would assist in care for displaced populations, which would include service contractors. This group may grow depending upon the size and duration of the incident. There are also other stakeholders involved when the planning moves from response to recovery,” Lopez explains.
Lopez adds, “HI-EMA’s Operations Branch includes our planning section and there is a group of planners that are working on these issues. As the Executive Officer, I provide guidance, review the plans, and examine for executability.”
Bringing an evacuation plan to life isn’t easy. Lopez says, “I believe the biggest obstacle to HI-EMA’s success with this plan as well as the overall success of the agency is not being fully staffed and funded.”
Hawaii State Senator Dru Kanuha is making sure a plan is crafted soon. Senator Kanuha, who had previously served on Hawaii County’s Council, said there was no codified evacuation plan during 2018’s destructive Lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea on the island. To change that, he put forward a resolution that was adopted by the Hawaii State Senate in March to have evacuation plans developed for impact zones around the Mauna Loa volcano.
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Senator Kanuha explained to us how his resolution came to be. “This has been going on since I was on the Council asking if there was any evacuation plan if there was an eruption from Mauna Loa,” Senator Kanuha said. No such plans existed then. “When I got into the Senate, I represented a bigger district of South Kona and Ka’u and with the latest eruptions on Mauna Loa in the southwest rift zone of South Kona and how the lava raced down the side of the mountain, I thought how it would affect those communities and wondered if there were any plans either from Hawaii Emergency Management or Civil Defense…and there wasn’t any.”
“So I wanted to make sure residents of the potentially affected areas could plan accordingly if there was an eruption that would occur. That was the nexus for asking HI-EMA to develop a plan,” explained Senator Kanuha.
The resolution includes Lava Hazard Zones 1,2,3,4, and 6. While those zones include other active volcanoes Kilauea which is erupting and Hualalai which isn’t, Senator Kanuha said the focus of this evacuation effort is on Mauna Loa and that any endeavor for the largest volcano on the island could be a good pilot for the other smaller volcanic threats on-island too.
While the resolution calls for a plan, it doesn’t establish any specific funding or resources to tap into during either a planning or execution phase. Lopez expressed concern, telling us, “Developing a complete plan for a volcanic incident based on these timelines is very challenging. The resolution adopted provided no funding or personnel resources and with understaffed agencies, this greatly increases staff workload still responding to COVID-19. In addition, hurricane season is upon us and our team at HI-EMA is doing plan improvements / updates for this season based on the evolving COVID-19 environment.” As with the Atlantic Hurricane Season, the Central Pacific Hurricane Season runs through to the end of November.
While putting together a plan for a possible major eruption of Mauna Loa seems as large as the volcano itself, the teams working on the plan can apply lessons learned that remain fresh, on top-of-mind from the 2018 Kilauea eruption. Lopez said, “The 2018 Kilauea Eruption response generated many lessons; for instance, improved planning to service isolated communities that may have transportation modes cut by lava – planning and limitations of air evacuation – the dilemma local authorities have of how and when to balance safety with an order to evacuate against the disruption of a community – there is special equipment required for infrastructure that most likely will not be in the state – recovery takes years.”
Lopez also told us that the team will also look to the mainland for advice or best practices. “HI-EMA does examine other volcanic risk areas not only by hazard, but also by planning methodology and response. We have incorporated many practices from our mainland west coast emergency management partners.”
While Lopez is committed to developing a plan, he hopes the inevitable eruption doesn’t happen and hopes a plan doesn’t need to be executed. However, that hope isn’t getting in the way of the planning process. Lopez said, ” Every emergency manager hopes not to have to execute one of their ‘plans’; I believe every emergency manager would have concerns about executing any ‘plan.’ All emergency managers feel the weight of the population they protect and the vulnerabilities of their infrastructure on their shoulders; they carry it every day and it keeps them up at night. I would say that if an emergency manager did not feel this way, especially in Hawaii, they should probably not be in the E.M. field. The state and counties have many capabilities identified to support a limited notice incident. Our existing plans and documentation are rooted in these and would be leveraged for response and recovery.”
Hawaii regularly plans for other disasters. The state is participating in the international “Shake Out” drill for earthquake safety on October 21. Every month, sirens are activated throughout the state to test Hawaii’s tsunami alarm system; in addition to the monthly tests, signs are posted to alert people that they’re entering or exiting tsunami danger areas; signs are also posted for where people should evacuate to in the event of such a disaster.
But for a disaster as big as an eruption from the world’s largest volcano, it may take more than an annual drill, a monthly alarm, or some road signs to keep people informed and educated on what to do. Senator Kanuha explained to us it is a really big challenge: “It’s so difficult to tell where an eruption could happen. Mauna Loa is so huge; in the past it has erupted in all areas: Hilo, North Kona, South Kona, and Ka’u; I don’t know exactly how it’ll play out. I think a lot of it will have to be educating the general public that, yes, we still live on one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, and this is a very real possibility.”
“I don’t know how it’ll play out in terms of signage around the island, but that’s the reason for starting this conversation and bringing in all of these logistical experts to see how the public can respond to a possible eruption,” Senator Kanuha said.
In terms of communicating to the public, Senator Kanuha doesn’t want this planning process to seem threatening to the public. “I don’t want to cause a panic…I just want the public to have an understanding that this is a real possibility and share with them what are our plans are in how we’d respond to this possibility.”
“It’s not a matter of it it’ll erupt, but a matter of when, ” Senator Kanuha explains. “There’s always a worry that Mauna Loa can erupt at any point. I definitely don’t want to press a panic button, but it’d be good to put a plan in place, educate our community, and have a process in which the county and state can deal with it when an eruption happens.”
The Senator’s resolution calls for the evacuation plan to be ready approximately 20 days before the start of the next legislative session, which would put the deliverable deadline at the end of the year in December.
However, Lopez points out that plans are never really “done”: “plans are continually being improved and detailed all the way up to and during execution. “