Volcanoes across Japan lack lifesaving shelters

Volcanoes across Japan lack lifesaving shelters
Volcanic smoke rises from Mount Ontake.

NAGANO, Japan - During the eruption of Mt. Ontake on Saturday, many climbers who managed to take shelter in mountain lodges near the summit survived.

Japan has 110 active volcanoes. While many climbers and tourists climb these volcanic mountains, many of them have no mountain lodges that can be used in emergencies. What measures should be taken to protect climbers in the event of a sudden eruption?

'Roofs' prove crucial

At the time Mt. Ontake erupted on Saturday, a 42-year-old climber from Nagoya was taking a break with 18 fellow climbers near the Ninoike pond located on the north side of the summit.

Seeing billowing smoke rising, he thought rocks would come flying toward them. He rushed to a mountain lodge about 20 meters away.

By the time all the members of his group reached the mountain lodge, rocks could be heard hitting the roof, and they saw big splashes in the Ninoike pond. "If we hadn't had any place to escape, we could have been hit by the rocks and lost our lives," he said.

After the volcano blew its top, the fate of climbers depended on whether they managed to reach mountain lodges or shelter beneath the eaves of shrines.

On Mt. Ontake, there are 16 mountain lodges and unmanned shelters, which have been used as shelters from severe snowstorms and in other situations.

However, many of the mountain lodges are built of wood so they are unable to withstand ash deposits. At a mountain lodge near the peak of Mt. Ontake, falling stones crashed through roofs and windows, with smoke entering the building.

On the mountain, there are no reinforced concrete shelters, with walls measuring several tens of centimeters thick, designed to withstand ash deposits in the wake of an eruption.

"No injuries had been caused by previous eruptions, so we didn't think it was necessary to build such shelters," an official at the Otaki village office in Nagano Prefecture said.

"We've equipped mountain lodges with helmets and walkie-talkies [for use] in the event of a sudden eruption. However, it would have been possible to reduce injuries if there had been reinforced shelters and other facilities," said an official at the Kiso town office in the prefecture.

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