Philippines authorities have urged a “total evacuation” of nearly half a million people near the capital Manila, after a volcano spewed ash up to nine miles (14 kilometers) into the air Sunday prompting warnings of a possible “explosive eruption.”
The Taal Volcano, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the capital Manila on the island of Luzon, is one of the country’s most active. Images from the scene on Monday showed streams of lava beginning to gush out the volcanic vent, the sky above still thick and dark with ash clouds.
The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) has raised the alert to Level 4, meaning an “explosive eruption” could happen in the coming hours or days. Its highest alert is Level 5, indicating an eruption is taking place.
The volcano isn’t actually very big—but it’s considered among the world most dangerous, owing to the number of people that live in its immediate vicinity, said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University.
PHIVOLCS has requested a “total evacuation” of those within a 17-kilometer (10.6 miles) radius around the volcano. This area, considered a volcanic danger zone, is home to more than 450,000 residents, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
As of Monday, more than 16,400 people had sought shelter in evacuation centers set up by the authorities. The total number of evacuees is likely to higher, however, with many people choosing to relocate to relatives’ homes.
Aid organizations like the Red Cross are also assisting the evacuation operation by sending rescue vehicles and supplies.
Residents within the evacuation radius are most at risk from the immediate effects of an eruption, including a possible volcanic tsunami in the lake surrounding the volcano, according to PHIVOLCS. The lava now beginning to erupt is also dangerous, Klemetti said—it’s creating “a big lava fountain” that could then cause hot ash and lava to spill into nearby towns.
However, ashfall from the volcano poses a threat for residents far outside the 17-kilometer area. There are 10 cities and municipalities surrounding the volcano, some lying outside that evacuation radius—and they are home to nearly 760,000 people, PHIVOLCS said on Monday.
On Sunday, the volcanic ash spread as far as Quezon City north of Manila, prompting the suspension of all flights at the capital’s international airport. Though the ash isn’t considered toxic, it holds shards of fine glass that can contaminate air and water supplies, said Klemetti.
Photos from the aftermath on Sunday show ash mixing with rain, creating that a thick black sludge that blanketed cars, streets, and homes in some towns. Ash is even heavier than snow, meaning excessive pile-ups, especially when mixed with rain, can causes roofs to collapse.
More than 25 million people live within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the volcano and would be impacted by an eruption.
The volcano has seen powerful eruptions before—one eruption in 1754 lasted six months, and its deadliest eruption took 1,335 lives in 1911. It erupted again in 1965, killing 190 people, and continued to have four more minor eruptions in the decades since.
Mariton Bornas, chief of volcano monitoring at PHIVOLCs, said that the agency had monitored tremors at the volcano as early as March 2019 — but they were surprised by the rapid speed of the eruption on Sunday.
By Alaa Elassar and Jessie Yeung