Scientists believe an eruption is not imminent, but are on alert because of a recent increase in earthquakes at the volcano’s summit.
According to experts, if the volcano erupts, it will only take a few hours for the lava to reach the homes closest to the crater.
The Hawaii Civil Defense Agency is holding meetings across the island to educate residents on how to prepare for a possible emergency.
The Big Island is home to about 200,000 people, including comedian Roseanne Barr, who brought the property in 2007 and has lived there in recent years. Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey bought a $7.85 million home in 2021 but spends most of his time in his home state of Texas.
The volcano makes up 51 percent of the Big Island’s landmass, so much of it has the potential to be affected by an eruption, officials said. They recommend that people keep a bag of food and designate an evacuation location if they are called to leave their homes.
“I don’t want to panic everyone, but they should be aware that they live on the slopes of Mauna Loa. There is the potential for some sort of lava disaster,” said Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator.
The volcano last erupted in 1984. In the past 38 years, the island’s population has doubled to 200,000 today from 92,000 in 1980.
Mauna Loa, rising 4,169m above sea level, is the much taller neighbor of the Kilauea volcano, which erupted in a residential area and destroyed 700 homes in 2018. Also, some of its slopes are much steeper than these of Kilauea, so when it erupts, its lava can flow much faster.
During an eruption in 1950, the lava traveled 20 kilometers to the ocean in less than three hours.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, part of the US Geological Survey, said Mauna Loa has been in a state of “heightened concern” since the middle of last month when the number of earthquakes at the summit increased from 10-20 a day to 40- 50 per day.
Scientists think more earthquakes are happening because more magma is flowing into the reservoir system at the top of Mauna Loa from the subsurface hot spot that feeds molten rock to Hawaii’s volcanoes. The frequency of tremors has decreased in recent days but may rise again.