How to Survive a Disaster: Volcano


In each edition of “How to Survive a Disaster,” we discuss best practices for preparing for and surviving all of the most common—and even some of the least common—disasters. Volcanoes are nothing to mess with, so if you live near one or plan on visiting one, there are some things you’ll want to consider.

If you live near a volcano

Millions of people live near volcanoes. From Italy’s Mount Vesuvius to Hawaii’s Kilauea, there are plenty of populated areas nestled in the shadows of volcanoes. The Indonesian island Java, for example, is home to more than 120 million people living near 30 volcanoes. National Geographic reports that these volcanoes have been fatal for over 140,000 people in the last 500 years. Death doesn’t just come from lava, either. Suffocating mud, toxic smoke, and even tsunamis can occur as a result of a volcanic explosion.

Preparing before an eruption

If you live near an active volcano, there’s a lot you’ll want to consider. Preparing ahead of time is the best way to mitigate the threats volcanoes can bring to you and your family. Be sure to pay attention to local reports related to volcanoes. While some volcanoes erupt without warning, some do give geological signals that suggest an impending eruption and warning systems will keep you posted on what might happen. The following are guidelines from both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Considerations to make before eruption

  • Review evacuation routes
  • Understand emergency alert systems
  • Create evacuation and preparedness plans
  • Prepare emergency kit (bug-out bag) and food supplies

Survival during an eruption

  • Close all windows, doors, and fireplace or woodstove dampers
  • Turn off all fans and heating and air conditioning systems
  • Bring pets and livestock into closed shelters
  • Keep necessities on hand
  • Listen for emergency alerts and do what they say
  • Stay inside until you hear that it’s safe to come out

If you’re visiting a volcano

Whether or not you live near a volcano, you may visit one. When you do, it might be worthwhile to consider some tips that can help you survive an eruption because certain types happen suddenly and with little to no geological warning signs. For example, the Mount Ontake eruption in September was a phreatic eruption, the result of which is a pyroclastic flow, which is described by io9’s Mike McKinnon as a rolling cloud of murder. Magma, toxic smoke, ash, and shattered rock are all threats this type of eruption brings to the table. They’re highly deadly, and they typically happen with no warning. 54 souls were lost in the recent eruption.

What do before you visit the volcano

If you found yourself in this type of situation, what would you do? As with any natural disaster, thinking about them ahead of time is critical. McKinnon offered some advice to people traveling up to a volcano:

  • Tell people where you’re going

This is a good practice for anyone traveling out of doors. If you don’t come home, they’ll know where to start a search.

  • Bring basic survival gear

Water, first aid kit, and flashlights are mainstays in any survival kit, but some pre-built ones include even more useful gear.

  • Bring eruption survival gear

Masks, goggles, and helmets can protect you from smoke, ash, and projectiles.

  • Learn about the volcano

When did the volcano you’re visiting erupt last? Is it monitored? (A surprising number of volcanoes in the US are not). Is there any reason to expect an eruption?

  • Learn about your environment

As you travel up the trail, take note of what you see. Are their high points? Are there shelters or structures? Think about where you’ll go if something happens.

What to do during an eruption

While the above tips were a good start,  you may not know what exactly to do when the thing erupts. Where should you actually go? Should you run full-bore down the mountain? Should you duck and cover? Bill McGuire, professor of geophysical and climate hazards at UCL, gave Wired UK some rules on what to do if there’s an eruption on an active volcano you’re visiting.

  • Take a guide

McGuire reported that over a dozen of his colleagues had died on volcanoes in the last twenty years. Even the pros make mistakes, but an experienced guide is an excellent resource to have.

  •  Don’t run right away

McGuire suggested that if you do hear loud rumbling or explosions, it’s wise to look up and see if anything is falling towards you, if so, carefully avoid it. Running without looking up may cause you to be struck by a projectile.

  • Take the high road

If you’re within around 10 kilometers of the summit, it’s best to stay on higher ground and avoid any valleys and canyons. If there are heavy flows, they’ll fill in the lower areas first.

  • Avoid ash-covered shelter

A previous tip suggested you look for areas where you can take shelter, but note that ash is heavy, especially when wet, and if there is heavy ash-fall, the roof of the structure can collapse with you inside of it. Be cautious about taking shelter in heavy ash-falls.

  • Get out of the way

If there are large pieces of hot rock and ash around you, shelter is a better option than staying outside where toxic gas can literally cause you instant death. McGuire suggests staying away from windows, curling into a ball, and protecting your head and face. Whether you’re visiting a volcano or live near one, there’s one piece of advice that’s just as important as anything else in this list: Keep calm. In any emergency it can be tough to keep it cool, but it’s important to keep your wits about you. Focus and think carefully before you act. Act without thinking and misjudgment could cause you injury or death. More than anything, try to keep a level head and use what you’ve learned and you’ll have a much better chance surviving a volcanic emergency. Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia

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