19 April 2016

Taal Volcano: Lying in Wait like a Booby-Trapped Postcard

Taal Volcano always looks picture-perfect, but has a violent past.

It is always easy when one drives along the Tagaytay Ridge to simply forget that the postcard picture perfect scenario below of Taal Lake has in its midst a midget of a volcano the size of which belies its violent temper.

The volcano has been relatively quiet since 1977, but in the same way a booby trap sits hidden among the grasses of a field – waiting for the unsuspecting to come by before exploding into the air. I myself live but a mere 16 kilometres from the volcano; yet I seldom, if at all, give it a thought in my everyday life.

Curiously, I have no recollections of Taal Volcano’s activities from 1976 to 1977. A Taal Volcano Profile pamphlet released by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) categorised these eruptions as mild phreatic.1

Phreatic explosions occur when magma, which is molten rock from the crust of the earth, heats ground or surface water. This results in an explosion of steam accompanied by water, ash, rock and chunks of molten rock called volcanic bombs.2

Image credit:  John Tewell's collection on Flickr.  Inside the Main Crater of Taal Volcano in this 1911 picture.

The eruptions in those two years were from Mt. Tabaro, often the postcard face of Taal Volcano. Because I have no recollections of these volcanic activities, then they were probably relatively insignificant, especially in contrast to well documented eruptions in the past.1

I do have vivid memories of the more violent eruption of 1965, categorised by PHIVOLCS as violent phreatomagmatic with acid rain, dangerous projectiles hurled into the atmosphere and ash fall 25 centimetres thick. These types of eruptions occur as a result of magma actually interacting with water and contain fragments of minerals and rock called clasts.3

I was an elementary schoolboy at the time; and I still remember having dressed up to go to school only to be told that classes had been suspended because Taal Volcano had erupted.

Neighbourhood kids in Fernando Air Base stood at the street corner where the Air Force school bus picked us up each morning. We were all gawking at this angry black cloud which appeared as though it was just behind the Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel inside the base.

That cloud was not unlike the iconic pictures taken at Hiroshima and Nagasaki after atomic bombs were dropped on the two Japanese cities to end World War II in the Pacific in 1945.

Image credit:  John Tewell's collection on Flickr.  The eruption on 1965 had a cloud not unlike that of an atomic bomb.

When it was deemed reasonably safe for schoolchildren to go to school in the next few days, the Air Force issued us with surgical masks as a precaution against inhaling the ash fall which littered the entire city.

But even this was peanuts to the most violent eruptions in recorded history, those in 1754 and 1911. Both eruptions emanated from the Main Crater inside the Volcano Island.

The 1754 eruption began on the 15th of May and did not end until December of the same year, more than six months in duration. PHIVOLCS categorised this eruption as very violent phreatomagmatic. Apart from projectiles hurled into the atmosphere, there were frequent rumblings of the ground which caused land fissures, acid rain, sulphurous steam and ash fall up to 110 centimetres.

A Father Buenchuchillo, parish priest of the town of Sala in present-day Tanauan, wrote comprehensively about the eruption. Here are some excerpts from his narrative:

“On May 15, 1754, at about 9 or 10 o’clock in the night, the volcano quite unexpectedly commenced to roar and emit, sky-high, burning flames intermixed with glowing rocks which, falling back upon the island and rolling down the slopes of the mountain, created the impression of a large river of fire.

“From the said 2nd of June until September 25, the volcano never ceased to eject fire and mud of such bad character that the best ink does not cause so black a stain.

“During the night of September 25, the fire emitted was quite extraordinary and accompanied by terrifying rumblings. The strangest thing was, that within the black column of smoke issuing from the volcano ever since June 2, there frequently formed thunderstorms, and it happened that the huge tempest cloud would scarcely ever disappear during two months.”

The 1754 eruption blasted so much debris into the atmosphere that the landscape was reshaped. Whereas previously, Taal Lake was linked to Balayan Bay by a channel wide enough to be navigated by ocean-going vessels, debris from the eruption is believed to have blocked off the channel and reduced its waters to what is present-day Pansipit River.4

Image credit:  John Tewell's collection on Flickr.  Victims of the 1911 Taal Volcano eruption.

The more recent eruption in 1911 was likely more destructive because by this time, the population had grown and more structures had been built since the eruption of 1754. This eruption was categorised by PHIVOLCS as very violent phreatic also with acid rain, dangerous projectiles, land fissuring and ash fall up to 80 centimetres.

Officially, 1335 people were recorded to have lost their lives, although it is believed that more than this number actually perished. Villages on the Volcano Island were all wiped out. Upon examination of the fatalities, their bodies were found to have been scalded by hot steam, hot mud or both.

The black cloud from the eruption rose to such great heights that people in Manila, 60 kilometres away, could see it in the distance. Ash fall from the eruption was also noted in Manila.5

Currently making the rounds in social media are disturbing reports saying that, apart from the recent spate of significant earthquakes around the world in recent days, 34 of 38 erupting volcanos this year are all in what is called the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Taal Volcano is among the lowest volcanos in the world but is also among the most dangerous as History has recorded. It is also very much a part of this dreaded Ring of Fire. I am definitely one of those silently praying that the recent spate in activity around the ring does not disturb Taal Volcano from its slumber.

The next time you are at Tagaytay Ridge enjoying the scenery down below, just bear in mind that the pretty sight you just snapped a picture of is a booby trap waiting to be tripped.

References:

1 Taal Volcano Profile, by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology
2 Phreatic Eruption, Wikipedia
3 Phreatomagmatic Eruption, Wikipedia
4 Pansipit River, Wikipedia
5 Taal Volcano, Wikipedia

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