HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii officials are warning residents of the Big Island that Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, is signaling a possible eruption.
Scientists say an eruption is not imminent, but they are on alert due to a recent surge in earthquakes at the volcano’s summit. Experts say it only takes a few hours for lava to reach the houses closest to the caldera, which last erupted in 1984.
The Hawaii Civil Defense Agency is holding meetings islandwide to educate residents on how to prepare for a possible emergency. They recommend preparing a “go-to” bag with food, identifying where they will live after they leave home, and making plans to reunite with their family.
“Don’t panic everyone, but they have to realize that you live on the slopes of Mauna Loa. There’s a possibility of some kind of lava disaster,” said Hawaii County Civil Defense Chief Talmadge Magno.
The volcano covers 51 percent of the land mass of the island of Hawaii, so much of the island could potentially be affected by the eruption, Magno said.
The development of the Big Island has exploded in recent decades—its population more than doubled from 92,000 in 1980 to 200,000 today—and when Mauna Loa last erupted 38 years ago, many new residents not nearby. Magno said officials are spreading the word about volcano science and urging people to prepare for more reasons.
At 13,679 feet (4,169 meters), Mauna Loa is the larger neighbor of Kilauea Volcano, which erupted in a residential area in 2018 and destroyed 700 homes. Some of its slopes are much steeper than Kilauea’s, so its lava can flow faster when it erupts.
In a 1950 eruption, the mountain’s lava traveled 15 miles (24 kilometers) into the ocean in less than three hours.
The Hawaii Volcano Observatory, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey, says Mauna Loa has been in a “highly volatile” state Since the middle of last month, the number of summit earthquakes has jumped from 10 to 20 per day to 40 to 50 per day.
Scientists believe more earthquakes are happening as more magma flows from hotspots below the surface into Mauna Loa’s mountaintop reservoir system, feeding Hawaii’s volcanoes with lava.
The frequency of earthquakes has dropped in recent days, but it is likely to rise again.
Over the weekend, more than 220 people attended a community meeting in Ocean View by county civil defense officials, where lava could reach the community within hours if it erupted from a vent on the southwest side of Mauna Loa.
Seaview resident Bob Werner, who was not at the meeting, said it would be wise to be aware of a possible eruption, but not fear it. He’s not worried that the neighborhood will be cut off entirely if lava flows through the only road connecting it to the big towns of Kailua-Kona and Hilo, where many shop.
“What’s more concerning is that it would be very annoying to drive an extra hour or two to get the same thing,” he said.
Ryan Williams, owner of Margarita Village Bar in Shiloh, said the volcanic unrest did not worry patrons accustomed to warnings.
The sense of urgency may still be heightened as officials have been holding town halls urging people to prepare.
“But everything I read or hear, they’re trying to reassure people that things haven’t changed,” Williams said. “No eruption imminent, just be vigilant.”
Magno said his agency is now talking to residents because the communities closest to the vent may not have enough time to learn how to respond and prepare once the observatory raises the alert level to “watch,” meaning an eruption is imminent.
The current alert level is “advised,” which means the volcano is showing signs of unrest, but there are no signs of a possible or certain eruption.
Residents in other parts of the island will have more time to react.
Lava from the northeastern side of Mauna Loa can take days or weeks to reach residential areas. That’s because the slopes on that side are relatively gentle, and the town is further from the crater.
Frank Trusdell, a research geologist at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, said all Mauna Loa eruptions on record began at its summit crater. About half of them stayed there, while the other half later spewed lava from vents down the mountain.
Lava spewing from mountaintops usually does not reach residential areas.
Since 1843, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times. The last eruption was in 1984, when lava flowed down its eastern side, stopping only 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) from Hilo, the Big Island’s most populous town.
Mauna Loa also has a history of spitting out large amounts of lava.
During a 23-day eruption in 1950, Mauna Loa released 1,000 cubic meters (1,307 cubic yards) of lava per second. By comparison, Kilauea released 300 cubic meters (392 cubic yards) per second in 2018.
Earthquakes can persist for a while before any eruptions: the increased seismicity lasted a year before the 1975 eruption, and a year and a half before the 1984 eruption. Alternatively, the earthquake may subside and Mauna Loa may not erupt this time.
Trusdell said residents should check his facility’s map to see how quickly lava is appearing near them. He also urged people living in one of the short notice areas to watch for the summit to turn red.
“All you have to do is look up at the light there. You pick up your stuff, throw it in the car and drive. Go!” he said.
If the lava doesn’t end up flowing into their community, they can always go home afterward, he said.
Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report in Anchorage, Alaska.