Experts on edge as Indonesia's volcanoes rumble to life
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's top volcano watcher, Surono, has had a frantic time in the past month. No fewer than four volcanoes on his watch have suddenly rumbled to life, giving the 52-year-old geophysicist and his staff many sleepless nights.
The head of Indonesia's Centre for Vulcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation and his colleagues are keeping a close eye on the famous Anak Krakatau, or "Child of Krakatau," and on Java's Mount Kelud, which is particularly hard to monitor because of its crater lake.
Last week, Surono, who obtained his doctorate from France's Universite de Savoie and speaks French, decided to move his office temporarily from the peaceful hill-top city of Bandung in West Java to a monitoring post near Mount Kelud.
While Surono kept a close watch on Kelud, whose crater lake has turned from blue to white because of all the sulfur bubbling up from inside the volcano, some of his colleagues have been dispatched to the Sunda strait separating Java and Sumatra to monitor Anak Krakatau.
The island volcano is a popular tourist attraction, but now tourists have been told to stay away as Child of Krakatau is spewing ash. The volcano was gradually formed after its famous "parent" Krakatau blew up in a massive eruption in 1883, triggering tsunamis and killing thousands of people.
Alerts have also been issued for Mount Soputan, in North Sulawesi, which erupted last month spewing columns of ash 1,000 meters high, and Mount Karangetan off Sulawesi island.
"I have had many sleepless nights. But I have no complaints. This is my life choice and I have to take the risk," said Surono, who admits he has taken to catnapping in his car to catch up on lost sleep.
Indonesia has the highest number of active volcanoes of any country, sitting on a belt of intense seismic activity known as the "Pacific Ring of Fire."
Kelud lies about 90 km southwest of Surabaya, the capital of East Java province and Indonesia's second-largest city. An estimated 350,000 people live within 10 km (6 miles) of the 1,731-meter (5,700-foot) volcano, farming on the rich volcanic soil in the area.
Surono's office raised Kelud's alert status to the highest level on October 16, as its activity increased and an eruption appeared imminent. The authorities tried to persuade nearby villagers to evacuate the area, but with mixed success.
The volcano's name means "sweeper" in Javanese, a reference to the fact that when it erupts, it sweeps away everything in its path. About 5,000 people died in 1919 when it spewed scalding water from its crater lake.
At the Kelud monitoring post, Surono oversees a team of 22 scientists including geophysicists, and computer and seismic experts. It is the biggest team devoted to monitoring a volcano in the country.
On Saturday, the volcano experts initially thought that Kelud, which was obscured by cloud, had erupted. The lake's temperature had surged and the frequency of tremors went off the scale of the monitoring equipment and could no longer be read by instruments.
But a few hours later, the scientists changed their minds and they are still waiting for the volcano to blow.
"The complexity of Kelud is very high. Its character is hard to comprehend," Surono said.
Since Kelud's activity increased last month, the volcano has released energy four times as strong as when it erupted in 1990, when about 30 people were killed, Surono said.
But so far, the energy has only sent boiling water spilling from the crater lake down one side, he said.
As the number of tremors soared and the temperature of the crater lake suddenly jumped on Saturday, Surono ordered his team to evacuate the post, fearing for their safety.
"They are valuable assets and they must survive to protect the safety of the people," said Surono. But he is concerned that many residents living nearby underestimate the danger.
Many villagers in Java are superstitious, and in this particular area they believe that as long as they turn off the lights and do not speak ill or loudly, the spirit of the volcano will calm down.
Some also say that they know the character of the mountain well and can take care of themselves in the event of an eruption.
"(But) people don't understand that an upcoming eruption may be entirely different from the previous ones," Surono said.