Thursday, December 08, 2005

Volcanic activity sends people packing

THOUSANDS of villagers on a Pacific island were being evacuated from homes near one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes yesterday after it started spewing ash and steam.

Mount Manaro on Ambae, Vanuatu, began smoking on 27 November and yesterday officials said they feared there would be a major eruption.

Douglas Charlie, a vulcanologist, said yesterday that the volcano "is one of the most dangerous in the world, as it's situated below a lake".

Lake Vui, which lies in the crater of Mount Manaro, could have its base torn open by an eruption, causing "a gigantic explosion" as the water hits hot volcanic magma or rock inside the volcano, Mr Charlie said.

The volcanic lake is also being forced up towards the rim, sparking fears of a mud flow if the lake wall bursts, which could drown the villages that surround the mountain.

Ham Lini, Vanuatu's prime minister, has yet to declare a state of emergency on the island, but said he would do so if the situation worsens.

Officials have ordered 5,000 people living in 15 villages in a "red zone" round the mountain to move to the coast.

Schools and halls were being used to accommodate displaced villagers as about 2,000 tonnes of ash a day fall around the mountain base and white steam clouds billow 4,500ft above its cone.
Steve Sherburn, a New Zealand vulcanologist, said Mount Manaro "is trembling all the time".
Apart from shaking, he said, "we are not seeing any large quakes associated with the island", which suggests the trembling is originating from eruptions in the lake.

"There have been several eruptions on the island in the past and this [event] at the moment seems to be typical of some of the larger eruptions," Mr Sherburn said.

A group of scientists had walked to the volcano's rim on Sunday and found the water of Lake Vui about 500ft below the rim of the 4,500ft mountain.

Three volcanologists from nearby New Zealand are monitoring the volcano in detail.

Mr Charlie said that "the danger is not yet high" but if the ash-falls continue, they will seriously affect water supplies and gardens at the volcano's base.

"If the eruptions worsen, the government may have to evacuate all 10,000 people from the island," he said.

Two ships have been sent to the island to aid any evacuation.

Ambae, an hour's flight northeast from the capital, Port Vila, lies near the islands of Pentecost and Maewo, which could be used to help resettle people displaced by a major eruption.
Vanuatu is an archipelago of more than 80 islands and 200,000 people.

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