A significant change in the lava flow from the world’s largest volcano no longer poses a danger to a crucial highway across the Big Island of Hawaii, scientists said Thursday, sparing drivers from having to commute on longer, alternative routes.
While Mauna Loa was still erupting Thursday morning, the lava flow has subsided over the past couple of days, said Matthew Patrick, a geologist at U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
“What we observed today was a pretty big change in the eruption in the flow field and that kind of the lower portion of the flow field has been kind of abandoned,” Patrick told USA TODAY Thursday.
The lava feeding the flow front heading toward Saddle Road, also known as Route 200 or Daniel K. Inouye Highway, was cut off and the lava supply had dropped “significantly” on Thursday, Patrick said.
Lava from Mauna Loa, which began erupting Nov. 27 for the first time in nearly four decades, was about 1.7 miles from Saddle Road, the USGS said in its daily update Thursday.
Over the past several days, lava flow from Mauna Loa had already slowed down as it crossed over flatter ground, according to the USGS.
“That’s good news for us,” Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth told The Associated Press. But county officials will continue to monitor the situation since it can be “highly variable” and “a lot of supply can fluctuate in these eruptions,” Patrick said.
With the lava in a state of transitioning, “it’s impossible” to estimate when or if the lava will intersect with the highway, Patrick added.
There is no current threat to any island communities or infrastructure, according to a Hawaii County hazard update on Thursday.
The highway remains open in both directions but all areas adjacent to the highway and near the lava flow are still closed for public safety, according to the hazard update.
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Last week, local officials warned that the lava could intersect with the highway earlier causing officials to plan for road closures and motorists to find alternative routes which could have added hours to commute times.
While it was expected for the lava to slow down considerably, scientists observed Thursday that there was a “higher than usual” lava fountaining, Patrick said.
The high lava fountains were noticed by people across the island, according to David Phillips, deputy scientist-in-charge at USGS’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Lava onlookers have been a concern among local officials.
Last week, thousands of motorists driving along the highway to watch the lava prompted officials to open a one-way “mitigation route.” About 20,000 vehicles have used the viewing route, which has helped reduce collisions as a result of the increase in lava-viewing traffic at night, officials said.
On Monday, Hawaii Gov. David Ige activated 20 state National Guard members to help with traffic control and other roles as lava from the eruption inches toward the highway, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
Authorities have also been giving citations to people who have entered closed or prohibited areas to get a closer look at the lava.
The state was “investigating people and companies who have entered the closed area and posted shots of themselves and lava flows on social media,” the Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement Thursday.
Contributing: The Associated Press