“Today, there are more children in need of humanitarian assistance than at any other time in recent history,” according to UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. 

Monday, UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, launched an emergency appeal for $10.3 billion, designed to help 173 million people, including 110 million children, that the agency says have been impacted by “humanitarian crises, the enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide and the growing threat of climate-impacted severe weather events.” 

The agency says climate change “is also worsening the scale and intensity of emergencies,” with the last 10 years being the hottest on record. In the last 30 years, the number of climate-related disasters has tripled, UNICEF says.  

“Today, over 400 million children live in areas of high or extremely high-water vulnerability,” according to UNICEF.  

Russell said, “The devastating impacts of climate change are an ever-present threat to children” and that is why UNICEF is “prioritizing climate adaptation and resilience building as part of our humanitarian response.”   

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In a remote corner of the Western Australian outback, work has begun on the world’s largest radio telescope. Astronomers say the Square Kilometre Array will be capable of searching the stars for signals of intelligent life and listening back to the start of the universe.

It is an international scientific collaboration. 130,000 antennas and 200 satellite dishes will make up the Square Kilometre Array project, or SKA. It will comprise two giant and super sensitive telescopes at observatories in Australia and South Africa.

By listening and looking deep into space, scientists hope the project can help answer some fundamental questions: Are we alone in the universe? How did the first stars come to shine? and What exactly is “dark energy” — the mysterious phenomena that appears to be pulling the cosmos apart?

Experts have said the SKA needs to be set up far away from the disturbances of radio frequencies on earth like those from computers, cars and planes.

They have said it will be eight times more sensitive than existing telescopes and will map the sky 135 times faster.

Danny Price, a senior research fellow at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Monday that the SKA has unprecedented astronomical power.

“It is going to be one of the most sensitive instruments that humanity has ever built,” Price said. “To put it into perspective the SKA could detect a mobile phone in the pocket of an astronaut on Mars.”

Australia, South Africa, Canada and Britain are among more than a dozen countries providing funding to the project.

A land agreement between traditional Indigenous owners, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization — the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency and the Western Australian and federal governments has allowed construction of the international Square Kilometre Array telescope to officially start Monday.

The giant radio telescope is expected to be operational by the end of the decade.

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It’s now a lot easier — and cheaper — for many hard-of-hearing Americans to get help.

Hearing aids can now be sold without a prescription from a specialist. Over-the-counter, or OTC, hearing aids started hitting the market in October at prices that can be thousands of dollars lower than prescription hearing aids.

About 30 million people in the United States deal with hearing loss, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But only about 20% of those who could use a hearing aid seek help.

Here’s a closer look:

Who might be helped

The FDA approved OTC hearing aids for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. That can include people who have trouble hearing phone calls or who turn up the TV volume loud enough that others complain.

It also can include people who have trouble understanding group conversations in noisy places.

OTC hearing aids aren’t intended for people with deeper hearing loss, which may include those who have trouble hearing louder noises, like power tools and cars. They also aren’t for people who lost their hearing suddenly or in just one ear, according to Sterling Sheffield, an audiologist who teaches at the University of Florida. Those people need to see a doctor.

Hearing test

Before over-the-counter, you usually needed to get your hearing tested and buy hearing aids from a specialist. That’s no longer the case.

But it can be hard for people to gauge their own hearing. You can still opt to see a specialist just for that test, which is often covered by insurance, and then buy the aids on your own. Check your coverage before making an appointment.

There also are a number of apps and questionnaires available to determine whether you need help. Some over-the-counter sellers also provide a hearing assessment or online test.

Who’s selling

Several major retailers now offer OTC hearing aids online and on store shelves.

Walgreens drugstores, for example, are selling Lexie Lumen hearing aids nationwide for $799. Walmart offers OTC hearing aids ranging from about $200 to $1,000 per pair. Its health centers will provide hearing tests.

The consumer electronics chain Best Buy has OTC hearing aids available online and in nearly 300 stores. The company also offers an online hearing assessment, and store employees are trained on the stages of hearing loss and how to fit the devices.

Overall, there are more than a dozen manufacturers making different models of OTC hearing aids.

New devices will make up most of the OTC market as it develops, Sheffield said. Some may be hearing aids that previously required a prescription, ones that are only suitable for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Shoppers should expect a lot of devices to enter and leave the market, said Catherine Palmer, a hearing expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It will be quite a while before this settles down,” she said.

What to watch for

Look for an OTC label on the box. Hearing aids approved by the FDA for sale without a prescription are required to be labeled OTC.

That will help you distinguish OTC hearing aids from cheaper devices sometimes labeled sound or hearing amplifiers — called a personal sound amplification product or PSAP. While often marketed to seniors, they are designed to make sounds louder for people with normal hearing in certain environments, like hunting. And amplifiers don’t undergo FDA review.

“People really need to read the descriptions,” said Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

And check the return policy. That’s important because people generally need a few weeks to get used to them, and make sure they work in the situations where they need them most. That may include on the phone or in noisy offices or restaurants.

Does the company selling OTC devices offer instructions or an app to assist with setup, fit and sound adjustments? A specialist could help too, but expect to pay for that office visit, which is rarely covered by insurance.

Sheffield said hearing aids are not complicated, but wearing them also is not as simple as putting on a pair of reading glasses.

“If you’ve never tried or worn hearing aids, then you might need a little bit of help,” he said.

The cost

Most OTC hearing aids will cost between $500 and $1,500 for a pair, Sheffield said. He noted that some may run up to $3,000.

And it’s not a one-time expense. They may have to be replaced every five years or so.

Hearing specialists say OTC prices could fall further as the market matures. But they already are generally cheaper than their prescription counterparts, which can run more than $5,000.

The bad news is insurance coverage of hearing aids is spotty. Some Medicare Advantage plans offer coverage of devices that need a prescription, but regular Medicare does not. There are discounts out there, including some offered by Medicare Advantage insurer UnitedHealthcare in partnership with nonprofit organization AARP.

Shoppers also can pay for the devices with money set aside in health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts.

Don’t try to save money by buying just one hearing aid. People need to have the same level of hearing in both ears so they can figure out where a sound is coming from, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

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China on Sunday reported two additional deaths from COVID-19 as some cities move cautiously to ease anti-pandemic restrictions following increasingly vocal public frustrations.

The National Health Commission said one death was reported each in the provinces of Shandong and Sichuan. No information was given about the ages of the victims or whether they had been fully vaccinated.

China, where the virus first was detected in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan, is the last major country trying to stop transmission completely through quarantines, lockdowns and mass testing. Concerns over vaccination rates are believed to figure prominently in the ruling Communist Party’s determination to stick to its hard-line strategy.

While nine in 10 Chinese have been vaccinated, only 66% of people over 80 have gotten one shot while 40% have received a booster, according to the commission. It said 86% of people over 60 are vaccinated.

Given those figures and the fact that relatively few Chinese have been built up antibodies by being exposed to the virus, some fear millions could die if restrictions were lifted entirely.

Yet, an outpouring of public anger appears to have prompted authorities to lift some of the more onerous restrictions, even as they say the “zero-COVID” strategy — which aims to isolate every infected person — is still in place.

The demonstrations, the largest and most widely spread in decades, erupted Nov. 25 after a fire in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed at least 10 people. That set off angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus of public frustration.

The country saw several days of protests across cities including Shanghai and Beijing, with protesters demanding an easing of COVID-19 curbs. Some demanded Chinese President Xi Jinping step down, an extraordinary show of public dissent in a society over which the ruling Communist Party exercises near total control.

Beijing and some other Chinese cities announced that riders can board buses and subways without a virus test for the first time in months. The requirement has led to complaints from some Beijing residents that even though the city has shut many testing stations, most public venues still require COVID-19 tests.

On Sunday, China announced another 35,775 cases from the past 24 hours, 31,607 of which were asymptomatic, bringing its total to 336,165 with 5,235 deaths.

While many have questioned the accuracy of the Chinese figures, they remain relatively low compared to the U.S. and other nations which are now relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus that has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide and sickened almost 650 million.

China still imposes mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers even as its infection numbers are low compared to its 1.4 billion population.

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Three Chinese astronauts landed in a northern desert on Sunday after six months working to complete construction of the Tiangong station, a symbol of the country’s ambitious space program, state TV reported.

A capsule carrying commander Chen Dong and astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe touched down at a landing site in the Gobi Desert in northern China at approximately 8:10 p.m. (1210 GMT), China Central Television reported.

Prior to departure, they overlapped for almost five days with three colleagues who arrived Wednesday on the Shenzhou-15 mission for their own six-month stay, marking the first time China had six astronauts in space at the same time. The station’s third and final module docked with the station this month.

The astronauts were carried out of the capsule by medical workers about 40 minutes after touchdown. They were all smiles, and appeared to be in good condition, waving happily at workers at the landing site.

“I am very fortunate to have witnessed the completion of the basic structure of the Chinese space station after six busy and fulfilling months in space,” said Chen, who was the first to exit the capsule. “Like meteors, we returned to the embrace of the motherland.”

Liu, another of the astronauts, said that she was moved to see relatives and her fellow compatriots.

The three astronauts were part of the Shenzhou-14 mission, which launched in June. After their arrival at Tiangong, Chen, Liu and Cai oversaw five rendezvous and dockings with various spacecraft including one carrying the third of the station’s three modules.

They also performed three spacewalks, beamed down a live science lecture from the station, and conducted a range of experiments.

The Tiangong is part of official Chinese plans for a permanent human presence in orbit.

China built its own station after it was excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese space programs’ close ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

With the arrival of the Shenzhou-15 mission, the station expanded to its maximum weight of 100 tons.

Without attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons — a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still up and running if the International Space Station retires by around the end of the decade as expected.

China in 2003 became the third government to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

China has also chalked up uncrewed mission successes: Its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon. Its Chang’e 5 probe also returned lunar rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.

Officials are reported to be considering an eventual crewed mission to the moon, although no timeline has been offered.

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Authorities in China’s financial hub of Shanghai will from Monday scrap some testing requirements in the country’s latest relaxing of its strict zero-COVID policy following nationwide protests unseen in decades.

Multiple cities have started to roll back some restrictions after public resentment at harsh and prolonged containment measures reached a boiling point last weekend, when spontaneous protests broke out in multiple Chinese cities.

Shanghai residents will no longer need a 48-hour negative test result to use public transport and enter outdoor venues such as parks and tourist attractions, authorities said in a WeChat post on Sunday.

The city of more than 23 million was sealed off for months this year, weighing heavily on domestic economic activity.

Shanghai follows multiple cities including Beijing, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Chengdu, which all cancelled the testing requirement for public transport on Saturday.

Beijing’s local authorities also abandoned on Saturday real-name registration that had been required to buy cold and fever medicine.

Chinese health authorities last month released a list of measures designed to “optimize” zero-COVID and minimize its socio-economic impact, but local enforcement of the measures has varied widely.

The northeastern city of Jinzhou said Thursday it would continue to impose lockdowns because “it would be a shame to not achieve zero-COVID when we are able to,” before backtracking the next day after public outcry.

Officials in the eastern city of Jinan said Sunday that residents would still need to scan a health code and have a recent negative test result to access public toilets.

Protests erupted over the past week in residential compounds in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou over what residents deemed were excessive measures.

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping is unwilling to accept Western vaccines despite the challenges China is facing with COVID-19, and while recent protests there are not a threat to Communist Party rule, they could affect his personal standing, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Saturday.

Although China’s daily COVID cases are near all-time highs, some cities are taking steps to loosen testing and quarantine rules after Xi’s zero-COVID policy triggered a sharp economic slowdown and public unrest.

Haines, speaking at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California, said that despite the social and economic impact of the virus, Xi “is unwilling to take a better vaccine from the West, and is instead relying on a vaccine in China that’s just not nearly as effective against omicron.”

“Seeing protests and the response to it is countering the narrative that he likes to put forward, which is that China is so much more effective at government,” Haines said.

“It’s, again, not something we see as being a threat to stability at this moment, or regime change or anything like that,” she said, while adding: “How it develops will be important to Xi’s standing.”

China has not approved any foreign COVID vaccines, opting for those produced domestically, which some studies have suggested are not as effective as some foreign ones. That means easing virus prevention measures could come with big risks, according to experts.

The White House said earlier in the week that China had not asked the United States for vaccines.

One U.S. official told Reuters there was “no expectation at present” that China would approve western vaccines.

“It seems fairly far-fetched that China would greenlight Western vaccines at this point. It’s a matter of national pride, and they’d have to swallow quite a bit of it if they went this route,” the official said.

Haines also said North Korea recognized that China was less likely to hold it accountable for what she said was Pyongyang’s “extraordinary” number of weapons tests this year.

Amid a record year for missile tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said last week his country intends to have the world’s most powerful nuclear force.

Speaking on a later panel, Admiral John Aquilino, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said China had no motivation to restrain any country, including North Korea, that was generating problems for the United States.

“I’d argue quite differently that it’s in their strategy to drive those problems,” Aquilino said of China.

He said China had considerable leverage to press North Korea over its weapons tests, but that he was not optimistic about Beijing “doing anything helpful to stabilize the region.”

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The director-general of the World Health Organization said Friday that due to COVID-19 “more than 8,500 people lost their lives last week — which is not acceptable three years into the pandemic, when we have so many tools to prevent infections and save lives.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last Saturday marked the anniversary of WHO’s announcement of COVID-19’s omicron variant, which he said “has proved to be significantly more transmissible than its predecessor, delta, and continues to cause significant mortality due to the intensity of transmission.”

The WHO chief said omicron has evolved and there are now “over 500 sublineages of omicron circulating” and all of them are “highly transmissible” and “have mutations that enable them to escape built-up immunity more easily.”

While WHO believes the world is “closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over,” Tedros said, “we are not there yet,” despite WHO estimates that at least 90% of the world’s population has some form of COVID immunity, due to infection of vaccination.

Tedros warned that, “Gaps in surveillance, testing, sequencing and vaccination are continuing to create the perfect conditions for a new variant of concern to emerge that could cause significant mortality.”

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Days after protests erupted in China over the country’s strict zero-COVID policy, there are signs the government is beginning to ease its testing requirements and quarantine rules in some cities, but it is unclear whether the measures will go far enough to appease those who have been in lockdown for so long.

Some called for more protests in China this weekend, but it remains to be seen if people will take to the streets like they did last weekend, when demonstrations broke out in more than 20 cities in a display of civil disobedience rarely seen in China.

“It’s hard to predict” what will happen this weekend, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA’s Mandarin Service.

Few people last weekend had been expecting to see Chinese residents “come out onto the streets in cities across the country, unmasked and calling for an end to lockdowns,” she said.

“The authorities have certainly made clear that they don’t want more of those — both by dispersing, surveilling and detaining some people, but also by agreeing in some areas to some relaxations on COVID-19 restrictions,” Richardson said.

Chinese officials said this week they are taking steps to ease coronavirus restrictions. While officials did not publicly mention the protesters, the move was widely seen as an effort to ease public anger over the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and head off any more demonstrations.

Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who heads the country’s coronavirus response efforts, said during a panel discussion with health workers on Wednesday that China would take “small steps” to relax its COVID-19 policy.

She said the country is facing a “new reality” as the omicron variant poses less of a threat than previous variants.

Several Chinese cities, including Guangzhou in the south and Shijiazhuang in the north said they were easing testing requirements and restrictions on movement. In the capital, Beijing, some neighborhoods said they would allow people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine at home instead of in government facilities, according to state-run media.

CNN reported Friday that Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged frustration within his country over the government’s strict COVID policies.

The news outlet quoted a European Union official who requested anonymity who said Xi told visiting European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing on Thursday that the protesters were “mainly students” who were frustrated by the government’s COVID-19 measures.

The Chinese leader hinted at the potential relaxation of the measures, saying that the omicron variant is less deadly than the delta variant, according to CNN.

Joe Mazur, a senior analyst at Beijing-based consulting firm Trivium China, wrote on Twitter on Friday that he and his colleagues are “convinced major shift is finally happening in China’s approach to COVID.”

He said the government is taking several steps that would indicate a true policy shift, including downplaying the seriousness of omicron, ramping up vaccination efforts, and allowing people with certain mild COVID-19 cases to quarantine at home.

A top World Health Organization official said Friday the agency was pleased to see China loosening some of its coronavirus restrictions. Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO emergencies executive director, said, “It’s really important that governments listen to their people when the people are in pain.”

He said China could boost its immunization coverage by using imported messenger RNA vaccines, like those made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna.

China has not yet authorized any foreign-made vaccines, which have been found to be highly effective. The country has struggled to vaccinate its elderly population, with only two-thirds of the people 80 and older are fully vaccinated, according to China’s National Health Commission.

Despite Chinese officials signaling a shift in policy, many of the COVID-19 restrictions that brought people into the streets to demonstrate this past week remain in force. It remains to be seen whether the moves by the government will go far enough to appease those frustrated by lengthy lockdowns and widespread testing.

Police patrolled the streets in major Chinese cities in an effort to head off any more protests. Notes on social media said people were being stopped at random by police who were checking their phones, possibly looking for any signs that they were supporting the protests.

An unknown number of people were detained in the recent demonstrations. Richardson said it is “virtually impossible to know at this point” how many protesters have been detained, on what charges they were brought in, and how they are being treated.

A Shanghai resident who participated in a vigil last Saturday to commemorate those who died in a fire in the western Xinjiang region told VOA he witnessed police arresting multiple people.

The fire in Urumqi was what initially spawned the protests across China, with many saying the victims in the burning building were blocked by locked doors and other anti-infection controls. Chinese officials have denied the doors were blocked and blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire to the strict COVID-19 measures.

The Shanghai vigil eyewitness, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told VOA Mandarin, “The police were arresting people in my face because I was always in the front row of the crowd. I was never targeted by them, just luck.”

Asked why he participated in the vigil, he said, “I happened to see it and felt that I had to participate because this is my responsibility as a citizen.”

John Kirby, the U.S. National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, told VOA that the United States has consistently supported the right of people to protest around the world.

The fundamental right for citizens is “to be able to freely assemble without fear, without intimidation, certainly without violence, to protest, to make their voices heard on issues that matter to them,” he said.

A bipartisan group of more than 40 U.S. senators warned China on Thursday against any violent crackdown on peaceful protesters saying there would be “grave consequences” for such actions.

While most of the protesters across China have focused their frustrations on the government’s anti-COVID policies, some have also demanded the resignation of President Xi.

China’s zero-COVID policy has been a signature policy of President Xi since the pandemic began. The country’s state media has touted the government’s political system under Xi as one of the main reasons China has been so successful in preventing COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The zero-COVID policy aims to isolate every infected person and has helped China to keep its case numbers, as a percentage of its overall population, lower than those in the United States.

As a result, millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes for up to four months. The policy has also had economic ramifications, including affecting global supply chains. Beijing’s target economic growth for 2022 was 5.5%, but by the end of September the country’s economy had grown only 3.9%.

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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The U.N. said this month that the world’s population reached 8 billion people, and more than half of the population growth up to 2050 would come from eight countries, five of them in Africa. In that time span, Nigeria is expected to double its population to 400 million people to become the world’s third most populous nation. Experts warn that without proper planning, such growth would be unsustainable, as Timothy Obiezu reports from Abuja, Nigeria. Videographer: Emeka Gibson

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Prayer. Bombs. Walls. Over the decades, people have tried all of them to stanch the flow of lava from Hawaii’s volcanoes as it lumbered toward roads, homes and infrastructure.

Now Mauna Loa — the world’s largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island’s east and west sides. And once more, people are asking if anything can be done to stop or divert the flow.

“It comes up every time there’s an eruption and there’s lava heading towards habited areas or highways,” said Scott Rowland, a geologist at the University of Hawaii. “Some people say, ‘Build a wall’ or ‘Board up,’ and other people say, ‘No, don’t!”

Humans have rarely had much success stopping lava and, despite the world’s technological advances, doing so is still difficult and dependent on the force of the flow and the terrain. But many in Hawaii also question the wisdom of interfering with nature and Pele, the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes and fire.

Prayers to Pele

Attempts to divert lava have a long history in Hawaii.

In 1881, the governor of Hawaii Island declared a day of prayer to stop lava from Mauna Loa as it headed for Hilo. The lava kept coming.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and her department heads went to Hilo and considered ways to save the town. They developed plans to build barriers to divert the flow and place dynamite along a lava tube to drain the molten rock supply.

Princess Ruth Ke’elikōlani approached the flow, offered brandy and red scarves and chanted, asking Pele to stop the flow and go home. The flow stopped before the barriers were built.

More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, asked U.S. Army Air Services to send planes to bomb a Mauna Loa vent to disrupt lava channels.

Lt. Col. George S. Patton, who later became famous as a general in Europe during World War II, directed planes to drop 20 272-kilogram demolition bombs, according to a National Park Service account of the campaign. The bombs each had 161 kilograms of TNT. The planes also dropped 20 smaller bombs that only had black powder charge.

Jagger said the bombing helped to “hasten the end of the flow,” but Howard Stearns, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist onboard the last bombing run, was doubtful. In his 1983 autobiography, he wrote: “I am sure it was a coincidence.”

According to the park service, geologists today also are doubtful the bombing stopped the lava flow, which didn’t end with the bombing. Instead, the flows waned over the next few days and didn’t change paths.

 

Local advises to go with the flow

Rowland said authorities could use a bulldozer to pile a big berm of broken rock in front of Daniel K. Inouye Highway. If the terrain is flat, then lava would pile up behind the wall. But the lava may flow over it, like it did when something similar was attempted in Kapoho town in 1960.

Rapidly moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea volcano in 2018, would be more difficult to stop, he said.

“It would have been really hard to build the walls fast enough for them. And they were heading towards groups of homes. And so you would perhaps be sacrificing some homes for others, which would just be a legal mess,” he said.

He said he believes most people in Hawaii wouldn’t want to build a wall to protect the highway because it would “mess with Pele.”

If lava crosses the highway, Rowland said officials could rebuild that section of the road like they did in 2018 when different routes were covered. There are no current plans to try to divert the flow, a county official said.

Thinking you should physically divert lava is a Western idea rooted in the notion that humans have to control everything, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. She said people need to adjust to the lava, not the other way around.

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The lava flowing from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, which is the world’s largest active volcano and erupted this week, is edging closer to the Big Island’s main highway.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported Friday that the main front of the lava flow was 5.2 kilometers away from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, and could possibly reach it in a week.

But the USGS also said that because of the unpredictable nature of lava flows, it’s “difficult to estimate when or if the flow will impact” the highway, which is the island’s main east-west road.

If the main highway is cut off, Hawaii county officials say, traffic will be forced onto coastal roads, crowding them and adding hours onto a trip from Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island, to Kona, a tourist magnet, which takes just 90 minutes on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

Talmadge Magno, administrator of Hawaii County’s Civil Defense Agency, told reporters this week that if lava flows onto the highway it would likely take the federal government a few months to get it passable again once the flows halt.

After the eruption on Sunday, the lava initially moved quickly down steep slopes. Over the past day, it reached a flatter area and slowed significantly, moving at just 40 meters per hour. The sight has attracted visitors to the “once in a lifetime” spectacle.

The USGS says many variables influence exactly where the lava will move and at what speed. On flatter ground, lava flows spread out and “inflate” — creating individual lobes that can advance quickly and then stall.

Mauna Loa rises 4,169 meters above the Pacific Ocean, part of a chain of volcanoes that formed the islands of Hawaii. It last erupted in 1984.

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