Living Near an Active Volcano: Is it Safe?

June 01, 2018

The Island of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island, is one of the few places in the world where visitors can get up close and personal with an active volcano and red-hot lava. This force of nature makes the island an enormously popular destination for visitors from around the world. Many visitors ask local residents if it is safe to live next to an active volcano and the answer is a resounding, yes! This unique and intriguing place is comprised of three active volcanoes: Mauna Loa, Hualalai, and Kilauea. Kilauea is currently erupting while the other two could erupt at any time. It’s also home to two others: Mauna Kea and Kohala. Mauna Kea is dormant, while Kohala inactive. Hawai’i Island’s Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes are both located within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984 and Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Hualalai is the third volcano keeping watch over the town of Kailua-Kona. However, this sleeping giant’s last eruption occurred in 1801.


Since most parts of the Big Island have not had lava flows for hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years, the U.S. Geological Survey feels confident enough to map Lava Hazard Zones based upon the likelihood of areas receiving a near-term flow of lava. Lava Zone 1 is the most hazardous (a few areas on the flanks of the active volcanoes where most recent outbreaks have occurred) and Lava Zone 9 is the least hazardous. Most communities living near volcanoes on the Big Island are either in the low risk or safe zones. For example, the town of Hilo on the Big Island is close to the volcano and is considered in the safe zone. Eruptions occur at long intervals of many decades or many centuries. The risk to life and property is rare and negligible. Whether they live in a low risk or safe zone, Big Island residents are aware of potential hazards in case of a major eruption and are prepared to evacuate as necessary. It’s important to note that the risk of injury from Hawai’i’s volcanoes is far lower than for other types of natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. In fact, among these hazards, volcanoes are historically responsible for the least amount of damage.

How often do Big Island residents worry on a day-to-day basis about the potential dangers of the next eruption? Certainly no more than California residents worry about the next big earthquake that the San Andreas fault will bring. We definitely worry far less than residents of the Gulf Coast or the Caribbean worry about hurricanes – especially after the summer of 2017; and certainly less than the typical Midwesterner or New England native thinks about blizzards and ice storms, icy roads and falling trees. Volcanoes actually offer benefits to nearby communities. Many Big Island residents rely on the three major peaks for their livelihood, since they attract much of the island’s thriving tourism industry. Visitors and residents are drawn to Mother Nature’s most spectacular displays. Volcanoes National Park, for instance, attracts thousands of visitors around the world every year, creating a variety of jobs for local residents in the tourism industry, including work in hotels, restaurants, gift shops and as tour guides. In fact, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is the state of Hawai’i’s number one visitor attraction. Another benefit of living nearby is that volcanic soils are some of the most mineral rich in the world. This nutrient-filled soil is ideal for growing healthy crops and yielding abundant harvests. The Big Island’s thriving agricultural industry – which grows a wide variety of food for consumption, as well as tropical plants and flowers, provide countless jobs for Hawai‘i Island residents. For the amateur gardeners living nearby, their green thumbs will rejoice!

With all the benefits of living near an active volcano, it’s still prudent to be aware that volcanoes can change, and turn a once safe area into a risky one. Accepting this possibility is just part of living in paradise. Overall, the risks for communities living in a safe zone are quite small. Residents are more likely to sustain injuries from other avoidable dangers – chiefly sunburn, dehydration or falls. Ask anyone who lives on the Big Island and they will tell you, there’s no place like da big rock to make your home!

(Article written by and courtesy of Hawaii Life.)