Magazine article Science News

Prediction Averts Volcanic Disaster

Magazine article Science News

Prediction Averts Volcanic Disaster

Article excerpt

Thanks to careful planning and geologic luck, volcanologists from Papua New Guinea successfully forecast a pair of eruptions last week, allowing 30,000 people to escape the endangered town of Rabaul.

Situated on a bay along the east coast of New Britain Island, Rabaul sits within a sunken crater, or caldera, formed during a huge eruption 1,400 years ago. The current blasts emanate from two volcanoes, Vulcan and Tavurvur, on opposite sides of the bay.

Scientists at the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory called for an evacuation on Sept. 18, hours after strong quakes rocked the area and seismometers detected a distinctive tremor that precedes eruptions. Early the next day, Vulcan and Tavurvur sent plumes of ash 70,000 to 100,000 feet into the air. In the days that followed, a thick layer of ash covered much of the town, combining with rain to collapse many roofs.

The United Nations' Department of Humanitarian Affairs says that the eruption displaced 45,000 people, but it has received no reports of casualties.

Geoscientists say the work of the researchers and civil defense officials at Rabaul averted untold fatalities. "The town is pretty much nestled inside a caldera -- inside a volcano. This time, they managed to get everyone out before the eruption," says James J. Mori of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. From 1984 to 1988, Mori worked as a seismologist at the Rabaul observatory.

Rabaul is one of several active calderas -- including Long Valley, Calif. …

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