Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Experts fear massive eruption from Mount Merapi!

A SERIES of powerful aftershocks hit the Pacific basin’s volatile Ring of Fire yesterday giving rise to fears that the Mount Merapi, the smouldering volcano, could erupt.

The aftershocks follow the powerful earthquake that struck the island of Java early on Saturday morning.

More than 450 aftershocks have been recorded in the area, underlining the volatility of the region, an area at the mercy of faultlines and home to the world’s highest density of active and rumbling volcanoes.

The first big aftershock, with a magnitude of 6.2, was recorded shortly after 3am yesterday about 117 miles off the coast of New Britain, an island off Papua New Guinea’s northeast coast.
Around 30 minutes later a second aftershock hit the coast of Tonga, about 2,500 miles away. There were no reports of serious injuries in either incident.

Barry Hirshorn, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, said that the two quakes posed no risk of a tsunami. Bayu Pranata, of the National Metereology and Geophysics Agency, said: “Aftershocks happen because the tectonic plates are in the process of stabilising.” He added that many people living in the region are unlikely to have felt most of the tremors.

While the strength and frequency of quakes in the region raises fears of more diasters, experts say that many are unrelated. The faultlines are where huge continental plates grind against each other as they float on the molten rock of the Earth’s core.

Mr Pranata said that the Indonesian quake had the potential to increase magma volume at the peak of the smouldering Mount Merapi, near the quake zone, as volcanic rocks could have fallen into the lava dome.

Bambang Dwiyanto, head of the geological department at Indonesia’s energy and mineral ministry, gave warning that the quake could set off a larger eruption. “The impact of the earthquake will influence the activities of Mount Merapi, particularly in the lava dome,” he said.

Clive Oppenheimer, of the University of Cambridge’s Volcanology Group, said external factors could trigger or accelerate eruptions. “It’s certainly possible a good shake from the earthquake could destabilise the lava dome,” he said.

Shortly after Saturday’s earthquake had flattened houses in the south of Yogyakarta on Java, volcanic activity on Mount Merapi — which means fire mountain — increased as a huge burst of hot cloud sent debris cascading down its western side.

In recent weeks gas and volcanic dust have spewed out of Merapi, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of villagers, as the authorities prepare for a possible eruption.

Indonesia has suffered two other earthquakes in the past 18 months. The 9.3-magnitude quake on December 26, 2004, unleashed a tsunami that killed 168,000 people in Indonesia’s Aceh province alone. An 8.7-quake 100 miles to the south on March 28, 2005, killed more than 600 people.

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