First, the good news: The lava spewing from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano is slowing, spreading, and posing no immediate threat to people on the ground.
The bad news: Possible health hazards remain as two volcanoes on Hawaii’s Big Island continue to erupt, spewing acidic gases into the air.
The world’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa, spewed lava fountains as high as 148 feet on Tuesday, but has since released shorter eruptions, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Mauna Loa’s eruption this week — its first eruption since 1984 — has sparked concerns that lava could threaten major highways on the Big Island.
Saddle Road, also known as the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, is the fastest route connecting the east and west sides of the island. Lava from Mauna Loa has been making its way toward the highway, less than 3.6 miles away on Wednesday.
But the U.S. Geological Survey said Thursday it could take a week for the lava to reach Saddle Road.
“Note that we’ve just had revised estimates based on the location of the flow front measured by our team in the field,” US Geological Survey tweets“Due to the flow front and flat terrain, it could take a week before it intersects the road.”
Adam Weintraub, communications director for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said local officials and the state’s Department of Transportation had been working on a plan to close highways if the lava came close enough to become dangerous.
Fortunately, the lava was moving into a relatively flat area — “so it was slowing down and spreading out,” Weintraub said.
But if the highway is closed, commuters won’t have any pleasant options.
Landscape worker Emmanuel Carrasco Escalante said he will have to choose between the north side or the south side of the coastal road to get from Hilo to Kona ( Kona).
“It’s a hassle to drive all the way around the island,” he told CNN. “If that road is closed, that’s going to add almost two hours, more gas, more miles, so hopefully it (the lava) doesn’t go across that road.”
The Hawaii Department of Transportation shared preliminary plans for the possibility of closures.
Weintraub said the Department of Transportation can give up to six hours’ notice of road closures.
“The staff at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory said that if lava appears to be threatening roadways, they can give a warning at least 24-48 hours in advance,” he said.
Weintraub said there are hospitals and first responders on each side of the island should there be an emergency during a possible highway closure.
Just 21 miles from Mauna Loa, another volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also erupting.
Kilauea has been erupting since last year. But this is the first time in decades that two volcanoes erupted at the same time.
State health officials have warned of potential air quality issues, including moisture or volcanic smoke.
Residents and visitors can expect “increases and fluctuations in humidity conditions, airborne ash and sulfur dioxide levels in various regions of the state,” the Hawaii Department of Health said.
The dark clouds spewing from volcanoes aren’t smoke—they’re “volcanic gases, acidic gases. You don’t want to breathe them in,” says volcanologist Jess Phoenix.
“You’re talking hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide. Those gases are really no fun to the average person, let alone if you have any respiratory issues,” Phoenix said.
“As a result, the Hawaii Civil Defense and the USGS will be closely monitoring the volcanic smoke … if people with respiratory illnesses should remain indoors, they will provide advance notice to any affected communities.”
Volcanic gases, fine ash and Bailey’s hair (volcanic glass filaments) may have moved downwind, the USGS said.
Children, the elderly and people with respiratory conditions should reduce outdoor activities that cause breathing difficulties and stay indoors and close windows and doors when humidity occurs to reduce exposure, the health department said.
Although an evacuation order has not yet been issued, the governor of Hawaii. David Iger said he signed an emergency proclamation as a “proactive” measure.
The governor acknowledged the potential for air hazards on Wednesday and said officials were tracking air quality monitors across the island.
“People are worried about dangerous gases in cracks. The most dangerous is sulfur dioxide,” Iger said. “Observation of volcanoes should be done at a distance. It’s not safe to make close encounters.”
More than 3,000 miles to the north, officials in Alaska are also monitoring two erupting volcanoes in their state.
Both Pavlov and Great Sitkin had low-level eruptions on the remote Aleutian Islands chain, said Cheryl Searcy, duty scientist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory.
“Pavlov has been erupting for over a year,” Sersi told CNN in a phone interview from Anchorage. “About 15 months of activity, longer than any previous eruption.”
During that time, Pavlov, at an altitude of 8,261 feet, did not produce high ash clouds that would pose a threat to aviation, Searcy said.
As for Greater Sitkin, lava is still erupting from its summit crater, according to a report from the state’s Volcano Observatory. Searcy noted that the 5,709-foot Great Sitkin has also been active for a long time.
Researchers are also keeping tabs on three other volcanoes that show signs of unrest, including Semisopochnoi, Takawangha and Cleveland volcanoes.
In all, Alaska has more than 40 active volcanoes, straddling the Aleutian Islands chain.