August 30, 2010

Indonesian Volcano Begins Erupting After 400 Years

A volcano in western Indonesia that has been dormant for more than 400 years erupted for the second straight day Monday, blasting hot ash more than a mile into the air and forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people in the region.

Many villagers living along the slopes of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra province wore masks as they packed up and headed to emergency shelters and churches, said Andi Arief, presidential advisor on disaster.

Homes and crops around the area were covered in ash and the air was thick with the smell of sulfur. Planes flying through the area also had to be diverted because of poor visibility.

At least two people are dead, but it was too early to tell if the volcano was to blame, according to Priyadi Kardono of the National Disaster Management Agency. One died of a heart attack and the other had a respiratory illness.

Mount Sinabung last erupted in 1600, so experts do not know the eruption patterns and said over the weekend they had not monitored the volcano closely before it started showing activity a few days ago.

Hours after the initial eruption, the alert was raised to the highest level.

The Sumatra fault line -- the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have pushed against each other for millions of years -- has the potential to be very destructive.

Stiff magma that formed inside the conical tip acts as a plug, allowing pressure to build up until it reaches a critical point and bursts.

"A volcano with a long repose period could deliver a more powerful eruption," Alain Bernard, a professor at the University of Brussels, told the Associated Press (AP). This was the case with Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which killed about 800 people after it erupted.

Mount Sinabung could either go back to sleep or produce more blasts with increasing intensity, Bernard said. A huge eruption is a rare event, and it is unlikely one will appear in the following days. "It takes normally weeks or months" for such an event to build up, he told the AP.

Strong wind shifts or a powerful follow-up eruption could affect air traffic in nearby Singapore and Malaysia, but, for now, only four domestic flights heading to the capital of Medan had to be diverted, said Transportation Ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan.

30,000 residents were evacuated by Monday afternoon, said Erni Damanik with the Tanah Karo district information center. Many living along the base of Mount Sinabung have also moved to outlying villages.

Government officials said food, tents and medicine were on the way to the scene, as well as 17,000 respiratory masks.

Indonesia is home to some of the largest eruptions in recorded history.

An 1815 explosion of Mount Tambora buried the inhabitants of Sumbawa Island under hot ash, gas and rock, killing more than 85,000 people. And an 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was heard more than 2,000 miles away and blackened skies around the region for months. More than 35,000 people were killed in the blast and the tsunami that followed.