June 13, 2006

Volcano’s Lava Dome Partially Collapses

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia - Mount Merapi's unstable lava dome has partially collapsed, easing pressure that threatened to make the Indonesian volcano erupt.

However, the mountain remains as the "highest possible alert," volcanologist Antonius Ratdomopurbo said on Monday.

"We should know within two days whether we can lower the (alert) level," Ratdomopurbo said.

The mountain has been venting steam and debris for weeks, but its lava dome swelled after a powerful May 28 earthquake, raising concerns the dome could suddenly collapse, sending scalding gas, rocks and debris hurtling into populated areas.

A huge, superheated cloud, the largest this year, brought down a section of the dome on Friday and created a new crater, relieving pressure on the dome.

"Now that the magma can flow out into the new crater, the dome will become much more stable," Ratdomopurbo said.

But he warned that 250,000 beleaguered villagers near Merapi were not yet in the clear, as a crack in the lava dome's southern foot had widened, threatening to unleash more powerful surges of superheated gas.

He said Friday's explosion reduced the dome's height from 380 feet to 305 feet, while its volume dropped to 116 million cubic feet from 140 million cubic feet.

A pyroclastic flow - a fast-moving burst of blistering gases and rock fragments - is the main concern. One killed more than 60 villagers in 1994.

As the volcano smoldered above them, defiant residents of its lower slopes have returned from refugee camps to tend to their normally lush green fields, now coated with gray ash.

Men in conical bamboo hats slammed hoes into Merapi's dark, fertile soil. An ash-covered woman swept gray soot from foliage before hacking it down to feed her livestock.

"I am unafraid. I believe the hot cloud will not attack us," said Suno Sudaraso, who refused to evacuate during last week's eruption. "My four cows will die if I don't feed them. They are my life."

The 9,700-foot Merapi is notoriously unpredictable, and scientists say they don't know for sure if a major eruption is imminent.

About 1,300 people died when it erupted in 1930.


Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report.