Scientists watch and wait as Bali's Mount Agung rumbles

REUTERS
Thursday, Dec 07, 2017
Photo: AFP

KARANGASEM, Indonesia - The question Indonesian volcanologist Devy Kamil Syahbana gets most is the one he cannot answer - when, or if, rumbling Mount Agung on Bali island will blow up in a major eruption.

The 3,000 metre (9,800 ft) Agung - a so-called strato-volcano capable of very violent eruptions - has recorded a sharp rise in activity that has raised worries about a repeat of a 1963 eruption that killed more than 1,000 people.

"There's no instrument in the world that can estimate precisely when there will be a major eruption," said Syahbana, who runs an observatory monitoring the towering volcano, just outside a 10-km exclusion zone.

Sensors beeped and walkie-talkies crackled he spoke to Reuters at the monitoring station.

"People expect certainty but volcanology is a science of probability," he said pointing to charts showing dramatic fluctuations in the seismic activity deep under Agung.

Authorities raised the alert status to the maximum after the volcano started erupting last month, spewing out ash over the holiday island and causing travel chaos by closing its airport for three days last week.

Source : AFP, Reuters, Indonesia Disaster Management Agency

Bali's Ngurah Rai airport was closed on Monday (Nov 27) until Tuesday morning.

On the neighbouring island of Lombok, the international airport resumed flights on Monday morning after it was closed on Sunday due to ash clouds.

Indonesia's disaster management agency (BNPB) spokesman, Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said in a statement that the volcano,

which began to spew lava on Saturday, has also continuously ejected ash while the sound of intermittent eruptions can be heard as far as 12km away.

Lava is molten rock or magma that has erupted from the volcano.

A bright glow from the lava on the volcano summit was often seen on Sunday night,

signalling that potentially greater eruptions are very imminent, Dr Sutopo said.

BNPB issued the level four warning alert, which is the highest possible, at 6am.

Residents have been told to evacuate from the danger zone, which has been expanded to between 8 to 10km from 6 to 7.5km.

"The estimated danger zones are dynamic and are under consistent evaluation,

and may change anytime depending on the most actual observation data," Dr Sutopo said.

He also warned residents to be alert for cold lava around Mount Agung.

"Cold lava floods have started to hit several places on the foot of the volcano," he said on Twitter.

All observation stations around Mount Agung have been recording tremendously higher intensity of tremors since Sunday, state news agency Antara reported citing Mr Gede Suantika of the Volcanology and Disaster Mitigation Centre.

The volcano, the highest point in Bali and located about 75 kilometres from the tourist hub of Kuta, has been rumbling since August.

More than 34,000 people have fled from a rumbling volcano on the resort island of Bali as the magnitude of tremors grows,

prompting fears it could erupt for the first time in more than 50 years, an official said.

Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency said the number of people fleeing their homes surrounding the volcano had tripled amid growing alarm that Mount Agung could erupt at any moment.

The airport has prepared buses and trains to divert passengers to alternative hubs in neighbouring provinces if the mountain erupts.

Flight disruptions due to drifting ash clouds are not uncommon in Indonesia, which sits on a belt of seismic activity known as the "Ring of Fire".

Bali officials said the island was still generally safe but urged tourists to stay away from tourism spots located within the danger zone.

Indonesia is home to around 130 volcanoes due to its position on the "Ring of Fire", a belt of tectonic plate boundaries circling the Pacific Ocean where frequent seismic activity occurs.

The volcano agency's chief Kasbani said Mount Agung had a history of major eruptions that eclipsed recent episodes in Indonesia, including the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi in Central Java that claimed at least 350 lives.

While hot magma has produced an eerie orange glow just above the crater, and thousands of villagers have fled from their homes on the mountain's slopes, Agung has, this time, yet to explode violently.

Syahbana, who studied volcanology in Brussels and Paris, said his team's main job was to "increase the preparedness of the communities here in the event of a major eruption".

He said safety was his priority, never mind that raising the alert level has spooked residents and tourists alike.

Syahbana said he had not come under any pressure to lower the alert, though his team was "aware of the costs" for Indonesia's main tourist destination famous for its beaches and temples.

'NO RECORDS'

Indonesia has nearly 130 active volcanoes, more than any other country.

Syahbana has surveyed and installed instruments on many of the most active ones, including Mount Merapi on Java island, to the west of Bali, and on Mount Sinabung in the north of Sumatra island.

His team of 16 scientists takes six-hour shifts to monitor seismic stations on Agung that record tremors deep inside the mountain, GPS trackers that record changes in land features and CCTV cameras that provide 24-hour surveillance.

"The difference between other volcanoes and Mount Agung is that there are no scientific records about previous eruptions here, only people's experiences," Syahbana said.In 1963, pyroclastic flows of lava and rocks poured out of the volcano, killing more than 1,000 people and razing dozens of villages.

According to survivors, that eruption was preceded by earthquakes, volcanic mudflows, and ashfall - all signs that Mount Agung is showing again now, said Syahbana.

COMMUNITY OF EXPERTS

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Bali's Mount Agung the new selfie hotspot for thrill-seeking tourists

This time, with the internet and live feeds on social media, experts around the world are watching the smouldering Agung.

US-based volcanologist Janine B. Krippner has been closely following developments since the alert status was first raised to the highest in September, and uses Twitter to share official information and bust myths and hoaxes circulating online.

An eruption is "usually a good time for the volcanology community to pull together and share their knowledge", she said.

"But I've never seen it happen on this scale before. It's partly due to social media and partly because it's a small and supportive community anyway," Krippner, who has also previously kept an eye on eruptions in Iceland, Hawaii and Chile, said by telephone.

With every passing day, and no big eruption, a danger is that a false sense of security creeps in. Syahbana and other experts said everyone has to stay on alert.

"We know this can be a very dangerous eruption," Krippner said.

"We shouldn't be complacent."

Source : Instagram

A potentially life-threatening natural disaster to some is a photo opportunity of a lifetime to others.

Mount Agung in Bali may be belching less ash and smoke in recent days, but the volcano is still on the highest alert level, after rumbling to life in September and showing signs of eruption in late November.

But the element of danger and fuelled foreign thrill-seekers keen for a close-up look at the volcano.

Mount Agung has become the new selfie destination, according to some reports, with tourists pausing outside the 10km exclusion zone for a quick snap.

One hot location is the picturesque Lempuyang Temple, or 'Gates of Heaven', as ash and smoke can be seen gushing from Mount Agung in the background.

Said Australian Jill Powers, who told Daily Mail Australia that she planned to travel to Bali to see the volcano: 'Sounds stupid but yes, I have it on my bucket list to see a live volcano.'  'I think it would be my only chance to tick it off.'

However, Indonesian authorities warn that at least 100,000 islanders will likely be forced to leave in case of a full eruption.

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