North Sumatra, a province in Indonesia, is struggling to recover after a massive volcanic eruption on Saturday. The volcano, named Mount Sinabung, first rumbled back to life in August 2010, after lying dormant (inactive) for more than 400 years. Multiple eruptions have occurred since then, but Saturday’s explosion was the most dangerous. It has caused at least 16 deaths.
AN ACTIVE VOLCANO
After its major eruption in 2010, Mount Sinabung remained relatively quiet until this past September. Then, an eruption prompted officials to order the evacuation of more than 6,000 residents living within a 3-kilometer (2-mile) danger zone. Over the past four months, a total of roughly 30,000 villagers have been evacuated.
Up until this weekend’s blast, volcanic activity had been decreasing. On Friday, authorities allowed nearly 14,000 people who had moved outside the mountain’s danger zone to return home to check on their farms and livestock. The next day, the volcano exploded violently.
The eruption produced pyroclastic flows (fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock) and lava. In addition, thick, toxic volcanic ash shot up a mile into the sky and covered the surrounding villages.
This ash—calf-deep in some places—as well as the superhot air around the mountain are frustrating rescue attempts. However, search and recovery teams are doing their best to look for survivors on the slopes of Mount Sinabung.
“The biggest risk is not the size of the eruption but the number of people in the hazard zone. We can’t predict or control nature,” says Surono. (Like many Indonesians, he goes by just one name.) Surono is a volcanologist, or a scientist who studies volcanoes.
THE RING OF FIRE
Indonesia is no stranger to volcanic activity. The Asian archipelago (group of islands) is found in an area of the Pacific Ocean called the Ring of Fire. This region is home to more than 75 percent of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes.
Why does the Ring of Fire have so many volcanoes? The Earth’s surface is made up of slabs of rock called tectonic plates. When two plates shift, slip or collide, that can cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or even the formation of new volcanoes. The Ring of Fire is the site of a lot of plate movement, which makes it a hotbed of volcanic activity.
Scientists aren’t sure when Sinabung’s explosions will stop, and officials worry about the extent of the economic damage being caused. Already, they estimate that it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the area and relocate people whose homes have been destroyed.
Indonesian officials continue to raise awareness about the dangers of volcanoes and the importance of evacuation. However, many villagers prefer to listen to the advice of spiritual guides, who often defy evacuation orders. One of these guides, Mbah Maridjan, refused to leave the displacement zone in 2010. He died during an eruption that year.
“Before that, many people listened to him and distrusted us,” says Surono. “Now they understand better that they should follow our advice.”