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lava flow from the continuously erupting Kilauea volcano

Holiday season brings volcanic dreams

For goodness sake – can’t science and engineering give us a holiday in paradise without the Earth turning itself inside out?   

In one of our many – many – dreamy moments of idleness, we on the science lite desk slipped into pondering holiday destinations. Not that we could afford to go away of course – the Editor kindly makes sure we are not troubled by the pesky complications of handling money by paying us like 18th century child labourers.

But, workhouse wages aside, there is nothing quite like browsing holiday destinations. We even managed to reach a consensus. Hawaii. Yes indeed – that’ll do nicely. The stunning scenery, the glorious beaches, the sedate reminder of how utterly insignificant humans are. Oh it’s beautiful all right, but it can sure bite. As we searched ‘things to do on Hawaii’ it became clear That a ‘must-do’ is ‘rise to the challenge and avoid the sublimation of your flesh on the lava spewing forth as the EARTH TURNS ITSELF INSIDE OUT!’.

We are paraphrasing the Hawaiian tourist board a little here – but as we researched our purely imaginary dream holiday we discovered that lava has risen above the crater floor in Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano for the first time since 2016. Which got us to thinking – given humans propensity to consistently try and push Nature back into her box to suit our own ends (tunnelling through mountains, creating entire islands, razing swathes of forest… you get the gist) – have we ever actually taken on a volcano?

Engineering had again taken on nature – and while perhaps a win is overstating it, surely a score-draw could be claimed?

Amazingly enough – yes. Many times, yet most attempts have met with failure. Perhaps one of the more successful came in 1973 when the Eldfell volcano threatened the Icelandic Island of Haimy. On 23rd January of that year, without any hint of a warning, the volcano thrust its way onto the global map and in doing so caused a major crisis for the inhabitants of the town of Vestmannaeyjar.

Shortly after the eruption began the entire population was evacuated; lava flows were slowly but surely making their way to the town and its harbour – the main source of income for the island. The situation certainly looked bleak, but some promising research had just been done suggesting that if the leading edge of the flow could be sufficiently cooled, then it may – just may – solidify prematurely and stop.

As a small island nestled in the North Atlantic and Artic oceans – there was an obvious choice of cooling medium.  And, almost five months and 6.8 billion litres of seawater later the hypothesis was, with much relief no doubt, shown to be correct. A fifth of the town was destroyed, but the harbour was saved all because the lava was cooled, slowed and diverted. Engineering had again taken on nature – and while perhaps a win is overstating it, surely a score-draw could be claimed?

Go with the flow
Back to our love affair with Hawaii – whilst there are exceptions, really they just go to prove the rule that the raw power of volcanic activity is seldom contained. A thought that is clearly prominent in the minds of the people of Hawaii’s Big Island as they evacuate the Kilaueu eruption.

But back in 2014, gathered in a small town hall, this humble approach was already present. The Island had just declared a state of emergency as the lava flow from the continuously erupting Kilauea volcano drew closer than a mile from the residential community of Pahoe. As was known from past attempts, engineering has given them options – be that cooling, diverting or even bombing (amazingly, this has been attempted at least three times) – yet the people of Pahoe seem acutely attuned to their environment. Many in the community wanted the flow just to take its course, with one saying: “It’s like trying to move the moon because it is too bright.”

Ah Hawaii, this makes us love you even more. There is something wonderful about this innate respect, even more so when the respect given comes from those facing such desolation. Desolation which has become very real indeed. We hope, given Kilauea’s recent and dramatic eruption, that you all embraced your clear respect for nature and managed to evacuate safely.

And what a humbling experience this is. That isn’t to say we should throw in the towel, but when the molten earth bubbles and spits its way to the surface what better reminder could there be that our engineering prowess – as staggering as it can be – is no match for nature.

And with that we are off to learn to Hula in our Hawaiian shirts (real) as we prep for our holiday (imagined).

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