Last week, hot, ground-level streams of volcanic ash and debris began flowing down the slopes of Mayon Volcano, a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) high volcano — the most active in the Philippines — on the roughly 200-mile (320-kilometer) peninsula. southeast of the capital Manila. . In the following days, volcanic activity increased, with Mayon spewing glowing lava at night and causing tremors in nearby villages. As of Wednesday, June 14, approximately 17,000 people have been evacuated, including those within the six-kilometer risk zone. National volcanologists have predicted that dangerous eruptive activity could be imminent within weeks or days.
The Philippines is no stranger to volcanic activity in the seismologically active “Ring of Fire” in the Pacific Ocean. In 1991, the violent eruption of Mount Pinatubo in Zambales killed about 700 people – more than the number of victims in the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state in 1985. And in 2020, most of the world was scrambling for covid-19 masks : The Taal volcano spewed tall columns of volcanic ash that reached as far as the nation’s capital, forcing airports to close and exposing residents to harmful particles.
But compared to those precedents, Mayon has recently shown unusual activity that may indicate a milder eruption, Ma said. Antonia Bornas, Head of the Department of Monitoring and Eruption Forecasting at the Institute of Volcanology: The level of sulfur dioxide that is normally released when magma is on the surface is currently in the hundreds of tons, and volcanoes usually release at least thousands of tons of magma. Gas before an explosive eruption. “We don’t see any volcanic activity,” Bornas told TIME. “If you look at the seismic energy of the volcano – as it’s been mapped – from a few months ago to today, it’s about the same.”
But that’s no reason to be complacent. “Today, the probability of an explosive eruption is quite low,” she says. “But tomorrow could be a different story.”
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Has Mayon had a violent outburst before?
Located in the province of Albay, Mayon Volcano is a stratovolcano: steep volcanoes formed by eruptions of volcanic material over thousands of years.
Records from the Philippine Volcanology Institute show that Mayon’s earliest recorded eruption occurred in 1616. Eruptions range from phreatic (steam-driven) to plinian eruptions: extremely explosive eruptions that can hurl volcanic debris tens of kilometers into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The last Plinian eruption in Mayon occurred in February 1814 and reportedly killed at least 1,200 people. In a minor eruption in 2013, five foreign climbers were killed by falling rocks. From January 13 to March 18, 2018, volcanic activity increased in Mayon, spewing columns of ash and lava and forcing thousands to evacuate, but there were no immediate casualties.
What is the current alert level for Mayon?
On a five-level scale, Mayon’s activity was placed at Alert Level 3 on Thursday, indicating a violent eruption from the crater, according to Bornas.
The current alert level can be found in the Volcanology Institute’s daily bulletin.
Despite the unrest, scores of volcano watchers flocked to Mayon, which has become a popular tourist attraction thanks to its majestic cone, prompting government officials to designate safe viewing zones, Philippine news site Rappler reported.
What are the possible consequences of such an outbreak?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, volcanic eruptions can lead to a variety of health risks, such as contamination of drinking water, wildfires, and the spread of infectious and respiratory diseases. “There is an associated health risk from being close to the eruption due to inhaling sulfur dioxide gas or the particles that fall from the ash,” Philippine Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa said at a June 11 news conference.
If Mayon erupts explosively, the effect will not extend to the entire planet and will likely only reach the Visayas archipelago in the south and the rest of the main island of Luzon in the north, according to Bornas of the Volcanology Institute. However, due to its high potential energy, the height of the volcano alone can cause serious damage to surrounding communities, even extending beyond the six kilometer danger zone. Agriculture officials also estimate that more than 5,700 hectares of crops will be affected in the event of a massive outbreak.
On Wednesday, Philippine officials also warned that volcanic activity in Mayon could continue for months, meaning some evacuees could be displaced longer than expected because they are not allowed to return to their homes in high-risk zones.
When Mayon erupted in 2018, more than 66,000 people remained in evacuation centers and damage to local agriculture was estimated at 185 million Philippine pesos (US$3.5 million).
What connection, if any, do volcanoes have to climate change?
Mayon Volcano. U.S. The Geological Survey (USGS) says that large explosive eruptions can eject large amounts of volcanic material into the atmosphere, some of which may have implications for global climate. Gases such as sulfur dioxide can cause global cooling, while greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide can cause global warming.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo ejected 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into Earth’s stratosphere at an altitude of more than 20 miles (32 km), cooling the planet by up to 1.3°F at the peak of the impact, according to the USGS.
Conversely, climate change can also affect volcanic eruptions. A 2017 study published in the journal Geology found that eruptions occur less frequently at lower global temperatures, suggesting that global warming could make these eruptions more intense. A 2021 study from the University of Cambridge also found that as the planet warms, smoke and fumes from eruptions may rise higher, allowing them to spread further.
Patrick Whelley, a geologist at NASA who has previously studied the frequency of explosive eruptions in Southeast Asia, told TIME via email that most of Mayon Volcano’s explosive eruptions are “small” and “do not pose a threat to anyone outside the summit area represents”. However, there were several volcanoes in Southeast Asia whose eruptions affected the global climate. Whelley says, “In Southeast Asia, they occur about every thousand years.”