Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mount Merapi is on red alert!

BELCHING clouds of black ash and fiery lava, Indonesia's Merapi volcano rumbled into action yesterday, forcing the evacuation of thousands of villagers who live on its fertile slopes.
Experts advised the government in Jakarta to raise the alert level to maximum, meaning that a full-scale eruption could occur any time within 24 hours.

The Mount Merapi volcano lies in the centre of Java, Indonesia's most populated island, and is the most active on the highly volcanic island.

Locals said they could see lava flowing and thick smoke rising from Merapi, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Pacific "Ring of Fire" that has been rumbling for weeks.

"I could see the lava clearly from my home this morning. Then they ordered us to evacuate our village," said Anton, a 25-year-old resident of Boyong village, around five miles from Merapi.
Television footage showed lava flowing out of the crater while thick clouds of smoke rose upwards and a large fireball burst into the night sky.

Despite the increased seismic activity and the lava which had flowed about a mile from the volcano's crater, local experts could not say when a full-scale eruption of the volcano was likely.
"This morning we raised the status of Merapi to the top alert, which is the red code. Every resident has been ordered to evacuate," Subandrio, head of the Merapi section at the Centre for Volcanological Research and Technology Development, said.

Subandrio, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said Merapi was releasing hot gas clouds or lava flows up to 1,500 metres from its crater towards the Krasak and Boyong rivers along the south-western slopes of the mountain.

Dali, another vulcanologist, said that the top alert - also known as code red or 'danger' status - meant that technically the mountain could erupt within the next 24 hours.

Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire", lies near the ancient city of Yogyakarta. It is also near Borobudur, a 1,200-year-old temple complex that is one of Indonesia's most famous tourist sites. In 1994 the volcano killed 70 people in an eruption and 1,300 in 1930.

During the last eruption in 1994, hot gas clouds, locally called "shaggy goats", travelled at fast speed several miles down from the summit and killed fleeing locals.

Government officials along with army and police yesterday evacuated more than 5,000 people living near the volcano to tents and shelters in safe areas following the new alert level.

One local resident said: "Everything ran smoothly, just like the exercises we used to have before. They have evacuated us to the village office."

The local government had been struggling to conduct mass evacuation as some villagers living on the slopes refuse to be moved because they rely on natural signs rather than official orders.

Residents say signals would include lightning around the mountain's peak or animals moving down its slopes.

Susilo Purwanto, an official at the disaster management unit in Sleman regency near Merapi, said: "We have prepared tents and shelters for 5,000 people. Most villagers have been notified about the latest status."

Indonesia, which has the world's highest density of volcanoes, had already moved thousands of people away from Merapi, but officials put the total number of residents on and near the mountain at around 14,000, which includes villages in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces.

Most Javanese villagers consider the mountain sacred. Every year a priest climbs to the top to make an offering. Many Indonesians also see activity in Mount Merapi, in the mystical heartland of Java, as an omen of looming political unrest.

Thousands of villagers were evacuated in January 1997 when Merapi became active, just months before the Asian financial crisis struck.

Most Javanese, who make up the bulk of Indonesia's 220 million people, are Muslim, but many cling to a spiritual past and believe some kind of supernatural kingdom may exist on top of Merapi.
A number of taboos also surround Merapi. While visiting the volcano, people are advised not to do things that could anger the spirits, such as relieving oneself wherever one might wish.

Another includes a prohibition on mentioning the volcano by name. Locals believe that to do so could bring them bad luck.

When referring to Merapi they therefore prefer to use the words "Si Mbah" instead. Si Mbah means "elderly person" or "respected figure", used for the volcano as an expression of respect.
Merapi has been witnessing small eruptions every two or three years, bigger ones every 10-15 years, and very large ones every 50-60 years.

The largest eruptions occurred in 1006, 1786, 1822, 1872 and 1930. The eruption of 1006 was so bad an existing Hindu kingdom is believed to have been destroyed.

The 'Ring of Fire', which Merapi is a part of, is a vast zone of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions looping around the Pacific Ocean and including Japan. Of the 500 Indonesian volcanoes which are part of the ring, 128 are active and 65 are listed as dangerous.

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