What the Philippines volcano ‘worst-case scenario’ could look like

With millions of people at risk, experts are looking to past big eruptions to better understand the unique hazards this peak can produce.

By Robin George Andrews
Published 14 Jan 2020, 12:09 GMT
An ash cloud rises over the lake as Taal Volcano erupts in the Philippines on January ...
An ash cloud rises over the lake as Taal Volcano erupts in the Philippines on January 12. The ongoing eruption is blanketing the region with debris and has already spurred evacuations, school closings, and flight cancellations.
Photograph by Ezra Acayan, Getty Images

Normally, the view from the webcam sitting inside Lake Taal in the Philippines shows clouds drifting over the lake’s placid waters, as verdant slopes rise in the distance. But on the afternoon of January 12, this peaceful scene was suddenly interrupted by a torrent of hot ash and gas, before the camera was smothered by darkness.

The outpouring marked the beginning of an unnerving eruption sequence at Taal Volcano, which sits on the island of Luzon. On the first day, steam-driven blasts flung ash nine miles into the sky. Startling displays of volcanic lightning ricocheted around this dark maelstrom, and a myriad of intense volcanic earthquakes rocked the region. On January 13, the eruption became somewhat more magmatic, as lava fountains started shooting up from the main crater.

Ash continues to blanket the Philippines as of publication time, including in the capital city of Manila, about 62 miles north of the volcano. Flights have been cancelled, schools and other public institutions have closed, and tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from both the volcanic isle within Lake Taal and from the vast shorelines around it.

So far, no casualties have been reported, and there is a chance this eruption could fizzle out. Still, many people likely remain in high-risk zones, and “the biggest bang is not always at the beginning of an eruption,” says Jenni Barclay, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia. “On a timescale much longer than the threat of a hurricane, something else could happen that’s even bigger.”

Past eruptions at Taal demonstrate that this volcano has a profoundly lethal capability, claiming thousands of lives throughout recorded history. If the latest event does become more explosive—a possibility that has scientists deeply concerned—it could yield a surfeit of volcanic hazards, from rocky debris bouncing across the lake to overwhelming tsunamis.

“This is definitely a volcano to be taken seriously,” says Beth Bartel, an outreach specialist at UNAVCO, a geoscientific consortium of universities and scientific institutions.

Telling Taal tales

With a plentiful supply of magma, Taal is one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, having erupted dozens of times in the past few centuries. Some of those past eruptions rank among the most powerful in the country’s history. But Taal Volcano is visually deceptive.

Many of these historical eruptions took place on the volcanic island in the middle of the more expansive Lake Taal. However, the entire volcano is far larger than this rocky outpost; it is a giant cauldron-shaped edifice known as a caldera. Much of the caldera is hidden by Lake Taal, and only a small portion of the volcano sits above the waves.

This is a problem not only for those who live on the central volcanic isle, but also for the 25 million people living within 60 miles of the volcano, including a huge number on Lake Taal’s shorelines.

Due to the continuing intense volcanic earthquakes and eruptive activity, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, or PHIVOLCS, has set the alert level to four, meaning that a hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days.

A link to the past

To understand what that might mean, experts can look to the past for hints. The most recent past eruption at Taal was a minor steam-driven event in 1977, notes Ed Venzke, the database manager at the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program.

While there may not have been an eruption for four decades, the volcano has “clearly been restless for a very long time,” says Amy Donovan, an expert in volcanic risk at the University of Cambridge. Although often moderate when compared to other volcanic eruptions, many of Taal’s paroxysms have been violently explosive and, due to the huge number of people living on or close to it, frequently fatal.

Greater ash production that often accompanies bigger booms will exacerbate matters. Ash can pollute water supplies, damage electronic infrastructure, smother agriculture, and kill off farm animals and pets. It can also kill people if they inhale enough of it; breathing in glassy ash is always bad, but people with pre-existing respiratory ailments are most at risk, as are the very young and the elderly.

Either through explosive mixing of magma and water, or through magmatic activity alone, Taal has also previously produced thundering, high-velocity clouds of hot ash, debris, and gas named pyroclastic flows that have killed thousands of people in mere moments. Boris Behncke, a volcanologist at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, shared some examples on Twitter, including flows from a 1911 eruption that killed 1,335 people on the central island.

A reasonable worst-case scenario would not just feature pyroclastic flows, but also low-altitude surges of ash and scorching gas that, due to their low density, can literally bounce over the water, says Donovan. These base surges—a term borrowed from nuclear explosion science—“can sandblast everything in their path, including the lake shore on the other side,” Bartel says.

What’s more, if explosions dislodge parts of the volcanic island that then fall into Lake Taal, that could generate tsunamis that will swamp the lake’s shorelines. As an eruption at Indonesia’s Anak Krakatau showed in December 2018, it only takes a small volcanic collapse to generate a lethal tsunami.

Even if there is no tsunami, falling debris and volcanic earthquakes can cause peculiar and potentially destructive waves known as seiches; if that debris has enough energy, it can miss the lake entirely and instead land directly on shore.

Back to Taal's future

Of course, forecasting eruptions is fraught with difficulty. Donovan points out that we don’t know how the properties of the magma under Taal have changed since the 1977 eruption. And while looking to old eruptions for clues is helpful, the past can only tell you so much.

“Every eruption is different,” Venzke says. “There’s nothing guaranteed.”

It’s possible that this grim future may not transpire, and that we’ve seen the worst of what Taal has to offer this time, Donovan says: “It might just generate a bit of ash, have a few fire fountains, then go back to sleep again.”

Alternatively, what we are seeing here could perhaps be the opening salvo of a far longer eruption sequence, says James Hickey, a geophysical volcanologist at the University of Exeter. And even if the eruption becomes more explosive, some, all, or none of these hazards may occur.

Still, it is sensible for people in the region to assume the worst-case scenario is unfolding and to take reasonable, responsible action, Donovan says. If you are still around Taal and haven’t yet heeded instructions to evacuate, it's best to immediately get away from low-lying areas near the volcano. Always listen to local authorities for updates.

In the meantime, volcanologists will wait with bated breath, since lessons from the past show just how dangerous this particular peak can be.

“When I saw yesterday that Taal was in eruption,” Bartel says,” I was somewhat horrified.”


Gallery: Volcanoes in action around the world


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