Mayon volcano ready to blow?

By Phil Plait | December 21, 2009 11:56 am

Mayon is a volcano in the Philippines that has been rumbling quite a bit lately, and scientists think it may be on the verge of a catastrophic eruption. They’ve issued a Level 4 alert; the only higher alert is Level 5, which is when a volcano is actually and actively erupting. This is serious: 45,000 people have been evacuated in case the volcano blows.

This image of Mayon was taken last week and posted on the Earth Observatory Image of the Day:


As you can see, downslope of the volcano — and in the path of previous flows — is the town of Legazpi, with nearly 200,000 inhabitants. Scientists at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology are recommending making danger zones that extend for several kilometers north and south of the volcano.

mayon_volcano_1984Activity such as earthquakes and smaller eruptions have already been seen, and it looks like this volcano really is going to erupt. The last big one was in 1993, and its history of deadly activity goes back longer than that; the picture here is of a pyroclastic flow from 1984.

I certainly hope that no one will be killed or injured from this, but I also know that there will always be people who don’t heed the warnings. If only more people understood that science works, and that geologists and volcanologists know their stuff. They devote their lives to this field, and their study of the Earth and its paroxysms may save the lives of others.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: volcano

Comments (32)

  1. You should see the hubris in people here when it comes to evacuating for hurricanes. -_-

  2. Ray

    Who will they bill for the greenhouse gasses released by the volcano?

  3. Chryse

    Hopefully, the lessons learned from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption back in the early Nineties will still be fresh in their minds.

  4. CryoTank

    The media will first downplay the danger and the next day exaggerate it. Then they’ll ask some ‘experts’ to comment on the situation. Finally, when the poop hits the fan, scientists are blamed and accused of ‘having known all along that a catastrophy was imminent but their Big Evac paymasters told them to hide the truth’.

    Ok, I *do* hope it won’t be anything like that and the people get out in time should Mayon blow…

  5. Michelle R

    I love volcanos. I dig eruptions like that. But there is a darker side to the whole thing: people dying and homes destroyed.

    Still… Fascinating, pretty things. Just another thing to show you nature doesn’t care much for us being in the way.

  6. Shoeshine Boy

    @#1 Bad things won’t happen to me. (But if they do, you are obliged to risk your life to rescue me, okay?)

  7. Sili


    So this is it! It’s was all just a typo. The world will end in a MAYON Apocalypse. Just you wait and see in 2012.

  8. Paul M

    @Ray – the cooling created by all the high-atmosphere dust will more than offset the greenhouse gasses, giving the Philippines a nice pile of carbon credits.

    I jest. Partially.

  9. We don’t need no volcano monitoring

    -Bobby Jindal

  10. Okay Sili beat me to it.

    As did John Paradox…

    I got nothing to add. Just hope people manage to stay safe.

    Would be kind of a bad reminder of past events in that part of the world if it blew on xmas though…

  11. Charlie Young

    The pyroclastic flow off one f those monsters is pretty devastating. I hope the people get it from past disasters and move out of the way.

    We have a couple of those time bombs in our backyard here in Washington state. If Mt. Rainier were to blow, not only do we get the pyroclastic flow, we get major flooding from a lahar (the rapid and devastating melting of the glacial icecap). Not really looking forward to that one.

  12. Carter


    As Paul M said, volcanoes release primarily particulate material, a.k.a. aerosols. Large plinian and ultraplinian volcanic eruptions have been linked to cooling events in the Earth’s history. Volcanic eruptions release very little greenhouse gases – virtually no CO2 in typical cases. This is because volcanic material (magma, or lava after it reaches the surface) does not contain much carbon at all. Only really weird tectonic settings, like in the African Rift where one particularly interesting “volcano” spews a constant stream of hot NaCO3, will you find significant amounts of carbon. This volcano is a stratovolcano and will most likely erupt rhyolite or dacite material that is high in silica. What little (comparatively to the amount of solid material) gases are released that trigger the eruption as the magma is decompressed and bubbles form, will be water in steam form. Of course, water is a greenhouse gas, but it turns into rain. So: no billing needed.

  13. Jack Mitcham

    Came here to say what John Paradox already said. Bobby Jindal would have those 200,000 people burn.

  14. Craig

    Dr. Plait,
    Trust me, the people there don’t care one bit about whether or not science can warn them in time to get to safety or not. Pinatubo was a terrible tragedy, and although people do remember it, you have to understand one thing — this is not the US or Canada. Many, if not most of the people there have very little. They have very few resources to go anywhere, and the government is not in a good position to evacuate that many people. Their decision to stay is not based on whether or not they buy into scientific capabilities, rather it’s socio-economic. They feel that they have to stay and protect what little they have.
    Sadly, mass evacuations and access to temporary relief is not possible in the Philippines as it would be here. Let’s not forget that Luzon is still trying to recover from typhoon season and massive floods.
    I think it’s a bigger tragedy that there are plenty of people there who want to get out, but it’s just not as easy as you think it might be.

  15. As a former resident of the Hawaiian Islands, Volcanoes scare the hell out of me. I wish the media here in the Philippines would take less of an alarmist stance and try to educate the people.

    According to reports from our Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, Mayon’s eruption looks to be less violent than Pinatubo’s was. Small favors and all that.

  16. P@J

    Yeah, selling the idea that Geologists need government money to study volcanoes ain’t going to get you too far in any election. I was once on a hike into the crater of St. Helens (just before the start of the 2004 eruptive cycle) with a prominent USGS volcanologist as a guide. He remembers how successful they were at saving probably a thousand lives by evacuating the area, and at the time thought this would prove the worth of volcano research. Ends up they got an extra million dollars or so in funding after St. Helens, which less than 5% of the cost put into building a highway to a viewpoint at Johnson Ridge.


    Oh, and Carter is spot-on. Big eruptions generally mean little CO2 released. One of the common indications that an eruption is imminent is a reduction in the CO2 outgassing (at least with shield volcanoes, I’m not sure the same effects are prominent in big-ass composite ones). Actually, some CO2 is likely to be sequestered as the ash and lava cover the rainforest surrounding the mountain.

  17. Scott B

    The issue isn’t that people should understand that “Science works”. The issue is how well it works. In the Wikipedia link in the article, look at the 2006 activity section. 40,000 people were evacuated out of specific areas. Maybe it’s just left out of the timeline, but there’s no mention that there was an actual eruption that would have killed them if they had not been evacuated. Now how likely are those people to evacuate this time?

    It’s similar to troubles the NHC runs into here when deciding to issue hurricane watches and warnings. The typical scenario is something like: They know there’s around an 80% chance of a storm hitting a 200 mile stretch of coast in 2 days. The chances the storm center passes within 60 miles of a specific point within that stretch of land is between 10% and 60%. Where do you issue the watches? Do you vary that watch depending on what laws the state(s) has on when they issue coastal evacuations?

    If people are evacuated and nothing happens, they are less likely to believe you next time and the state needlessly loses money. If you don’t evacuate and people die, you are blamed and have some potential liability issues. There’s not correct answer really. IMO, the best advice is to tell people the exact probabilities, to the best of our knowledge, for whatever disaster could happen and what is likely to happen if it does. Then let people make the call. Yes, some people will gamble, stupidly we might think, but if we are giving people a choice they have to take that responsibility. If people are given “safe” advice to try to motivate them to evacuate when the chances they would be impacted are low, the lesson they will take is that science doesn’t work.

  18. Dean

    I wonder if this eruption will be enough to have global climatic impacts…we’re well overdue for one (haven’t had one since Pinatubo).

  19. Lawrence

    An “eruption?” or one big enough to have an impact on global climate? There are active, erupting volcanoes on pretty much every continent right now (and under water), so your statement needs some clarification.

  20. Dean

    Especially violent volcanic eruptions can get large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, which results in a bit of a haze. That haze reduces the amount of visible light getting to the surface of the Earth, which will result in a temporary cooling. Because of the long lifetimes of aerosols in the stratosphere, this would last 1-2 years.

    I’m basically wondering if this eruption might be as violent as Pinatubo or El Chichon.

  21. Carter

    @Dean and Lawrence:

    Precisely, Dean. Lawrence, volcanoes that constantly erupt primarily produce basalt magmas which are of lower viscosity. These eruptions create “rivers” of lava (pahoehoe) or a’a and block flows if they produce slightly more viscous basalt-andesite and andesite. These less viscous magmas release comparable amounts of sulfides and sulfates to the more viscous magmas (the actual amounts depend on many factors like tectonic setting, source material, etc.) but being less viscous release them at a more constant rate. Very violent, larger eruptions like explosive destruction of lava domes following sector collapse release vastly larger amounts of these chemicals essentially instantaneously, and can alter the atmosphere more significantly. One might say that the volcanoes that ooze out their lava, like the typical fire fountain and lava river volcanoes seen in Hawaii, contribute to the background level of these chemicals in our atmosphere. These contributions are essentially balanced out by a range of meteorologic processes, creating what we think of as ‘normal’ amounts of aerosols and other chemicals in the atmosphere.

    Crystal (er, optical-quality calcite) clear? Heh.

  22. Chris Sanchez

    Prior to its massive eruption a few years back, Pinatubo hadn’t erupted in a really long time – 500 years or so, if Wikipedia’s correct. Mayon’s been erupting rather more frequently over the past few centuries. Would it be reasonable to surmise that if Mayon were to erupt now, it would most likely be less violent than Pinatubo’s last eruption?

    I can still remember Pinatubo’s horrific eruption in 1991. Our PHIVOLCS and many of the other organizations operating in the area (the Red Cross, the local government units, etc.) did manage to successfully evacuate most of the people who lived in the vicinity of Pinatubo before it erupted. The ash fall was just immense, though, and it blanketed areas many miles away, including Manila (my family’s garden took quite a while to recover) – to say nothing of the closer areas like Pampanga and Zambales Provinces. And of course Typhoon Yunya/Diding made things much worse – it passed by at about the same time Pinatubo blew its top. All that water and wind plus the ash in the atmosphere… At some points it was practically raining mud in some areas.

    PHIVOLCS Director Raymundo Punongbayan and his staff really did a terrific job in ’91 – without them the combined impact of Pinatubo and Yunya would’ve been far worse. (Punongbayan died in a helicopter crash four years after the eruption.) Sadly, the Philippines’ disaster preparedness hasn’t lived up to the standards set by that team – the government’s response to the recent Typhoon Ketsana/Ondoy, for instance, was just God-awful.

    Hopefully if and when Mayon erupts it won’t be so destructive. We Filipinos have had a tough year (Manny Pacquiao and our other triumphs notwithstanding!) and the last thing we need is another massive disaster. Especially with our elections coming up next year.

  23. Dob

    It looks like a giant innie.

  24. Joe

    Well, gentlemen, I live 9km due south of this lady and I hope that she will gently release her pressure and go back to sleep. I was able to hear rumbling from her yesterday, but she is quiet today.

  25. I don’t know
    I don’t know
    I don’t know, where I’m a gonna go
    when the Volcano blow

    [for all the Parrotheads]


  26. although I hope that people don’t get hurt, I would be dissapointed if there isn’t a plan to video document this eruption. there is an erie beauty in the movements of a pyroclastic flow.

  27. Petrolonfire

    So this volcanoes been rumbled & the evacuated Philippino’s think it blows? 😉

    @ 7. Sili Says:

    AHA!! So this is it! It’s was all just a typo. The world will end in a MAYON Apocalypse. Just you wait and see in 2012.

    Classic. LOL! 😀

  28. DrFlimmer

    I find Volcanoes very fascinating, but that’s most likely due to the fact that I live far away from one. I love documentations about the Vesuv and its giant eruptions, like the one in 79AD. And maybe the beast is on its way to explode again.

    Hopefully no people will be injured, especially now in the Philippines, of course!

  29. hope this doesn’t cause a disaster like the tsunami caused over the xmas period

  30. Chris Winter

    When I was young I had a book describing Mount Mayon as the world’s most perfect volcano (meaning most nearly cone-shaped.) I gather it’s no longer that way…

  31. steve fuqua

    I lived pretty near Pinatubo before its eruption in ’91. Ray Punongbayan and PHILVOCS saved many lives. I didn’t truly believe that Pinatubo was that dangerous until little pebbles of pumice and droplets of grey mud were raining down on my head. I was at a safe (although messy) distance because of their warnings.
    I hope people listen this time too.

  32. Raja

    I hope the volcano will not kill any peoples and it would not make a major damage in that area!!!:(


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