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Sunday, November 2, 2014

HOW DO YOU STOP A LAVA FLOW?



The lava is advancing gradually and may soon be flowing through our beautiful town.

A bit of history:  grandchildren Albert and Charles both went to West Point and became the first "Asian" generals in America.  Hilo Airport is named after Brigadier General Albert Kualii Brickwood Lyman.

Lava did cut off the tributaries to the Wailuku River.  Then, the hot rock flow stopped a mile away from the town center of Hilo.

The really scary eruption, because it was so recent and so rememberable, was in 1984, when Mauna Loa sent a flow close to Hilo.  Here on the map to the right it doesn't look that threatening, but that photo at the top is a night view, and the lava looked like it was almost there.  I was there.

I was part of an informal group organized at the University of Hawaii to suggest solutions.  A decade previously I had submitted a proposal to tap the energy from the pool of cooling lava at the base of Kilauea Iki (right--and that lava fountain reached an astonishing height of 1900 feet--that's six football fields on top of each other, plus another 100 feet), and had done some cursory research on the subject.  Fortunately, the flow just stopped and Hilo was spared, again.  Will this, too, happen to Pahoa?
Scientifically, if you were desperate and had to do something, anything, you can cool the source of the magma or block the exit to stop the eruption.  Of course you might then trigger a monumental explosion, like what happened to Mount St. Helens in 1980.  Thus, no one has proposed something crazy like dropping a series of 4500 pound bunker busters into the heart of Kilauea caldera.  

But the American military in the past was involved with almost that.  Lt. Col. George S. Patton designed a bombing run of Mauna Loa when it erupted in 1935.  In the '70's, the U.S. Air Force did actually bomb that volcano, twice, but only for experimental purposes.  Today it's unimaginable for anything so harsh to be suggested.  Just attempting to place another telescope on Mauna Kea has been an exercise in near futility.

However, in 1970, cannons of frigid sea water were used on the Icelandic island of Haimey, and saved part of the town of Vestmannaeyjar and its harbor:


One and a half billion gallons of water were used over a period of 5 months, and that scene above is where the lava flow actually stopped.

A chemical engineering solution would be to introduce carbonate rocks (such as limestone).  There would be an endothermic reaction to cool the lava, increasing the viscosity and stopping the flow.  Unfortunately, if the volcano keeps spewing out molten rock, the flow could go elsewhere, and there would be liability problems.  Similarly, a barrier can be used, and, if it works, will only pass on the problem to your neighbor.  Here is a dike solution (right) applied in Japan, but this was for volcanic mudflow, not lava.
In any case, I feel somewhat comfortable addressing this subject (although my common sense says I should remain silent), for in the '70's I worked on Operation Plowshare to use nuclear bombs for peaceful purposes at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  The purpose of our  specific efforts was to frack rock to stimulate the harvesting of oil shale.  Mind you, the team had gone on to only consider non-nuclear options when I came on board, but we did in the 1970's catalyze those efforts ongoing today for natural gas.  I even went on to work for the U.S. Senate from 1979-1982 and helped pass legislation to promote fracking.  It has taken a third of a century.  There are some things in life one regrets.

So now returning to Puna and the Kilauea lava flow, I noticed that just downhill of Pahoa is the Puna Geothermal Venture (38 MW) power plant:


You need to pass through Pahoa to get to this geothermal region, which is located uphill from the Kapoho eruption in 1960,  where the main flow went to sea, but an offshoot in 16 days totally wiped out the town.  But one never learns, for this is now the most expensive part of Puna with million dollar homes.

I did not do any topographic analysis, but my best guess is that, if the Kilauea flow continues to the ocean, it will pass north of this geo-power region.  It would be ironic, and disastrous, though, if Madame Pele (painting by Herb Kane) became responsible for the demise of geothermal power in Hawaii.  The potential could well be 500 MW of cost effective and base load power.  In the 70's, Hawaiian protesters warned that she would get angry, Federal Judge David Ezra agreed that there was insufficient environmental data, thus effectively limiting the spread of this power potential for the Big Island.

Zillow has 777 homes for sale in Pahoa.  While not exactly under similar circumstances, I can sympathize with these owners, for my apartment is now for sale in Honolulu.  The human toll and assorted humanitarian tragedies in Puna cannot be discounted if the worst happens, but there is only one geothermal facility in Hawaii, and I helped build it.  Life is full of contradictions and conflicts.

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Super Typhoon Nuri is already at 150 MPH and will further strengthen into a Category 5:


However, computer models continue to show Nuri tracking a path in the Pacific Ocean sufficiently east of Japan.  Big waves can be predicted for the north shore of Hawaii in ten days or so.

There is a second ocean storm, in the East Pacific.  Hurricane Vance, at 80 MPH, will strengthen into a Category 2:



While originally projected to crash into the main part of Mexico, current models show Vance making some complicated moves, maybe even passing west of Baha:


Cruise ships in that region will have problems.

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