Volcano Erupts after 400 Dormant Years

An Indonesian volcano has erupted, causing panic in villages and delays to flights to the immediate area. Mount Sinabung, in the north of Sumatra island, started emitting lava and ash early on Sunday, followed by another eruption on Monday, sending plumes of ash two kilometres into the air. So far about 21,000 people have been evacuated from the area and are living in temporary accommodation. The volcano had previously been dormant for 400 years. It has long since been considered inactive. The volcano erupted just after 12:15 a.m. Sunday (1:15 p.m. ET Saturday), the official Antara news agency reported. After the eruption, glowing volcanic materials spewed out of the mountain and could be seen as far as 10 km away, the official Antara news agency reported. On Saturday, the Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation issued a warning and ordered evacuation of a six km radius around the volcano.

As many as 30,000 people who live near the mountain have fled their homes, freelance journalist  Michel Maas reported. Maas said villagers living along the slopes have packed their belongings and headed to emergency shelters, mosques and churches. “Nobody is sure how long this is going to last,” Maas told CBC News in an interview from Indonesia. He said local residents are trying to move livestock to safety because they are not sure how long they will have to stay in emergency shelters.

Health officials have been distributing thousands of face masks to help people protect themselves from the ash and smoke billowing into the air. Food, emergency tents, and medicine were on the way to the scene, said Andi Arief, a presidential adviser on disasters. The government has also set up public kitchens for refugees and handed out more than 17,000 respiratory masks. “It has now stopped,” said Johnson Tarigan, a spokesman for Karo district. “We have enough food and water here, but we need more gas masks.” (CNN)

Some small domestic flights have been deferred because of the volcanic ash, but larger planes have not been affected, since they can simply fly over the ashes, said Bambang Ervan of Indonesia’s Ministry of Transportation. Officials are concerned that if the eruption continues, the smoke – up to 2,000 metres high – could disrupt aviation. But the nearby Polonia International Airport was still operating normally Monday.

While two people have died – a 64-year-old woman from respiratory problems and a 52-year-old man from a heart attack – it was too early to say if the volcano was to blame, said Priyadi Kardono of the National Disaster Management Agency.

Sinabung last erupted in 1600, so observers don’t know its eruption pattern and admitted over the weekend that they had not been monitoring it closely before it started rumbling days ago in the lead-up to Sunday’s first, less-powerful blast. “We really have no idea what to expect,” Surono, a government volcanologist who uses only one name, said after the mountain’s alert was raised to the highest level. “We don’t know what set it off, how long it will continue or whether we should expect… more powerful eruptions.” (CBC)

Indonesia is spread across 17,500 islands and is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes because of its location with the so-called “Ring of Fire” – a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

Indonesia is also home to some of the largest eruptions in recorded history. The 1815 explosion of Mount Tambora buried the inhabitants of Sumbawa Island under searing ash, gas and rock, killing an estimated 88,000 people. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa could be heard 3,200 kilometres away and blackened skies region-wide for months. At least 36,000 people were killed in the blast and the tsunami that followed.

Like other volcanoes along the Sumatra fault line – the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have been pushing against each other for millions of years – it has the potential to be very destructive.

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