Inferno in paradise as tourists flee Bali

Hot spot: Indonesia is home to more than 130 active volcanoes. © Getty

Are volcanoes nature’s most terrifying force? The alert for Bali's Mount Agung is now at its highest level and the airport is closed amid fears of an imminent catastrophic eruption.

Brooding over the eastern end of Bali, a tropical, touristy island in Indonesia, stands the conical peak of Mount Agung. Occasionally it belches smoke and ash, like a bully ready to strike. Now this volcano, considered sacred to the Balinese, looks set to wreak havoc.

Since the weekend, Mount Agung has been hurling clouds of white and dark grey ash nearly 10,000ft into the atmosphere. Lava is welling up in the crater. Its explosions can be heard nearly ten miles away. Officials have warned residents to stay away from rock and debris flows known as lahars, which have been spotted cascading down from the mountain.

The authorities have ordered a mass evacuation of 100,000 people from the surrounding area. But thousands more are trapped on the island after the ash, which can be deadly for aircaft, reached the airspace around Bali’s busy airport.

“A larger eruption is potentially imminent,” said The Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management. But according to geologist Mark Tingay of the University of Adelaide, it can be "very hard to tell" how the situation would develop.

Few natural disasters have had an impact on the world like volcanoes. They shape the landscape around the edge of the world’s vast tectonic plates, forming islands such as the Hawaii archipelago.

The mineral deposits left by volcanoes result in extremely fertile land. Pompeii may not have developed without the soil formed by Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that eventually destroyed the city. Volcanoes are both givers and takers of life.

But the worst volcanic eruptions can be much more catastrophic than Vesuvius. The latest string of eruptions in Indonesia has triggered fears of a supervolcano about to blow.

These create ash clouds which would cover everything within a 500 mile radius in around 10 cm of debris, enough to destroy houses and kill anything it touched.

The ash, some suggest, would be dense enough to cool the planet by 20°C for decades. Almost all life on Earth would become extinct — including humanity.

Violent planet

Humanity can recover from floods, earthquakes and famines, say some. But volcanoes have the power to wipe out all life on Earth, turning its lush landscapes into rocky wastelands, before heralding a new ice age. The fact that humanity has relied on them so much makes them even scarier.

Just look at the numbers, reply others. Volcanoes do not kill nearly as many people as other natural disasters. The most deadly volcano in recorded history killed 92,000 people in Indonesia in 1815. The deadliest earthquake, on the other hand, killed nearly a million people in China 500 years ago. And the chances of a supervolcano erupting soon are minimal.

You Decide

  1. Are volcanoes nature's most terrifying force?
  2. Should people live in areas that are prone to volcanic eruptions?

Activities

  1. Split into pairs. You live near an active volcano. Discuss five ways you need to be prepared in case of an emergency. Report your findings to the class.
  2. Draw a diagram showing how a supervolcano could erupt, and what would happen if it did.

Some People Say...

“Men argue. Nature acts.”

Voltaire

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Authorities on the Indonesian island of Bali fear that a major eruption of the Mount Agung volcano is imminent. The threat alert has been raised to the maximum level, prompting mass evacuations and stranding thousands of travellers. The volcano first began belching thick gas last week, and that lava flows, known as lahars, have been seen flowing down the mountain.
What do we not know?
Volcanoes are quite hard to predict. From time to time, Mount Agung fires ash into the air without a major eruption. Geologist Mark Tingay says: “These eruptions can be quite large and extensive and violent, but this could also be a relatively minor eruption over time." We also do not know whether a supervolcano will erupt in our lifetimes, and how prepared for it we would be.

Word Watch

Sacred
The Balinese believe Mount Agung to be a replica of Mount Meru, the universe’s central axis in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology. Bali’s most important temple, Pura Besakih, is located high on the slopes of the volcano.
Supervolcano
The most famous supervolcano lies beneath Yellowstone National Park in North America. In 2013 scientists discovered that it was much bigger than previously thought — a cavern of liquid rock 90km long and 30km wide, reaching depths of up to 15km.
Cool the planet
The Yellowstone volcano last erupted 640,000 years ago and is believed to have caused the most recent ice age.
Most deadly volcano
The Mount Tambora eruptions began in April 1815 with explosions until July and aftershocks up to four years later. Ash from the eruption dispersed around the world lowering global temperatures. It led to worldwide harvest failures in 1816, known as “the year without a summer”.
Deadliest earthquake
The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake was particularly devastating because most of the local population at the time lived in artificial caves in cliffs, many of which collapsed.

Subjects

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