Guest Post: Remembering When Mauna Loa Last Awoke: Damage Begins, Tempers Flare (Part 2)

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By Erik Klemetti
Mar 26, 2014 10:59 PMNov 19, 2019 8:21 PM


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This is part 2 of a 3 part retrospective on the 1984 eruption of Mauna Loa by guest blogger, Zahra Hirji. Be sure to check out part one for the first 24 hours and details on the author. -------------------- Guest Post: Remembering When Mauna Loa Last Awoke: Damage Begins, Tempers Flare (Part 2)Lava flows raced down the northeastern mountainside, knocking out the power for two research stations and threatening a prison. As Hilo residents started to panic, Hawaiian authorities knocked heads over how to respond to the unfolding situation. During the eruption’s early days, lava flows were “moving far faster than anyone [could] run,” said then-Mauna Loa geologist Jack Lockwood. Monitoring by air, scientists recorded the lava’s progress by sketching flow outlines on top of topographic maps. These were truly rough approximations, explained Lockwood. Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, meaning it has a gradual slope and little topographic relief. With few hills or noticeable landmarks, scientists had difficulty discerning the position of the flows correctly.

A channel of lava from Mauna Loa’s 1984 eruption is pictured here. Image: R. W. Decker, USGS But one marker, a critical local power source, was impossible to miss because it was right in the line of fire. The mountain’s upper slopes were barren save for two atmospheric research centers: the Mauna Loa Observatory, home to the carbon dioxide measurements that underlie the famous global warming hockey-stick chart, and the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory. Both centers were located along the volcano’s northern section, far from the active area. Their power source, which also served as a relay station bouncing television signals from Maui to Hilo, was not. Due to Mauna Loa’s varied topography, lava switched composition from speedy, crumbly black lava, called a’a (pronounced ah-ah), on the upper steeper slopes to a slower moving silvery ropey form, called pahoehoe (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy), on the lower flatter regions. It was the fast-moving a’a lava that devoured a chunk of power lines on the eruption’s second day, Monday, March 26. Two television stations were knocked off the air, although they acquired back-up generators a few days later. The atmospheric observatories were not so lucky; they lost power for nearly a month. After the incident, Mauna Loa Observatory director John F. S. Chin spoke to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. “It’s our first interruption since 1958 when we began collection of samples of carbon-dioxide,” he said. Other disrupted experiments included solar radiation measurements, ozone observations and aerosol sampling.

During the 1984 eruption, lava flows inundated the power source of the Mauna Loa Observatory, shown here. Image: Zahra Hirji News of the overrun power station did not deter those hankering to get a view of the flows from wandering off marked trails. To crack down on roving tourists and residents, Civil Defense Director Harry Kim closed Saddle Road, the only cross-island highway. At a press conference about the decision, Kim said, “I cannot dish out resources for the benefit of some dingaling who wants to hike over the hill and see the eruption. Your safety is more important than some S.O.B.”—(son of a bitch)—“who wants to go over and see Pele.” (Pele is the Hawaiian volcano deity; physical aspects of an eruption, such as lava flows and fountaining, are considered extensions of Pele.) Publically, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and its head Bob Decker made no official statement on the matter. But it was no secret that geologist Lockwood was not pleased about Kim closing “the damn highway.” According to the Lockwood, Saddle Road offered incredible close-up sights of the major eruption. Rather than have people drive there themselves, he figured, private buses could shuttle onlookers back and forth and make money, too. The geologist and civil defense director also disagreed over how to manage the escalating stress levels of Hilo residents. Some families living in the two subdivisions highest up the mountain, Kaumana City and Kaumana Estates, voluntarily evacuated in the first few days of the eruption. To curtail anxiety, Kim announced that he would give residents 24-hour evacuation notices. But this move had the opposite effect, according to Lockwood, who recalled receiving panicked phone calls from the community. Lockwood also knew residents would have at least a week’s notice to evacuate based on the flow’s movements. The geologist confronted Kim. “I think I chilled my bottom for about an hour” before finally making it through the director’s door, said Lockwood. “Then I gave him my arguments and [he] paid no, absolutely no, attention at all,” said Lockwood. The Civil Defense Director “kept on the warnings, kept scaring people after the eruption, and closed the Saddle Road.” Kim saw it differently. The eruption was proving highly uncertain. First, the flows moved towards South Kona, and a few hours later, they switched to the Hilo side. One morning the flows threatened a prison, and the next day they stopped. There was no guarantee that the flows would keep pace for a week, whereas there was higher certainty for lava movements within a twenty-four-hour window. Kim did not want to announce evacuations that ended up being unfounded. Complicating matters further, Hawaii’s youngest volcano, Kilauea, started erupting on March 30, 1984, prompting the first double eruption in nearly 116 years. While the Kilauea eruption only lasted a few days and remained within the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park grounds, it stretched already gossamer-thin resources. ------- Come back tomorrow for the final chapter in this look back at Mauna Loa's last eruption.

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