This is an opinion piece about earthquakes, volcanoes and court cases. Last week we learned that a group of relatives to the victims of the 2014 Mount Ontake phreatic detonation that occurred at 11.52 on the 27th of October.
Before I start I will say that my heart goes out to the families of the victims. It is never easy to lose someone that is close to you.
The reasons for the court case
In Japan you can sue negligent civil servants for money if they have been derelict in their duty. The lawyer behind the case are stating two different things as reasons for the scientists having been negligent and derelict of duty.
The first reason is that on the tenth of October there were 58 small earthquakes and on the eleventh a further 85 small earthquakes occurred. This prompts the lawyer to state that the alert level should have been raised latest on the twelfth.
The second reason given is that two seismometers close to the mountain top were broken and that they had not been repaired by the scientists. The lawyer here states that it made precise recordings and predictions harder.
For the layman this sounds like a slam-dunk court case, but things are never easy around volcanoes.
The first fact is a really important thing that I spend a lot of time arguing with people about. This was not an eruption. For most people this sound counter-intuitive, after all the mountain did hurl quite a bit of warm rocks about. But the thing is that a real eruption is a completely different kind of beast than a phreatic or a phreato-magmatic event. Let us look at the definitions.
Eruption – juvenile magma comes up from depth and is the main constituent in the eruption as fresh lava is expelled as ash or a lava flow (or any other form an eruption can take).
Phreatic detonation – This one is caused by water/magma interaction. It happens as water encounters a pocket of magma. This will flash-turn the water into steam that will expand 2 700 times in almost no time at all and a steam driven detonation follows.
Phreato-magmatic detonation – This is a special version of the ordinary phreatic detonation. As the water comes into contact it either blows out pieces of magma or remobilizes the volatiles inside the magma causing the magma pocket in turn to explode. These can be harder to differentiate from real eruptions, but the salient points are that no fresh magma has made its way up the conduits from depth and that it is water/magma interaction causing the eruption and not the magma in and of itself.
This may sound like nitpicking, but further down when we look at how to predict eruptions it will have major impact if it is a real eruption or not.
If we look at the earthquakes that occurred on the 10th and 11th of October they tell a story that is not related to juvenile magma moving up through the system. Instead they are more related to settling of the edifice due to shrinking magma pockets.
As the edifice settled cracks formed and water found new conduits down into depth from the watertable. After that it took a little while for the water to move down and encounter the magma, then it was just a case of waiting for the pressure to become high enough.
For those who have seen regular steam explosions, a flash-conversion to superheated steam, “dry steam”, is a completely different beast. Even though it has a far lower energy content than TNT (Trinitrotoluen) it has 70 percent of its brisance force. Or in other words, 1 cubic meter of superheated steam will hurl as much rock as 700kg of TNT. And there is a lot of water in a water table under a mountain so the effect can be damnably deadly if you are in the way.
The problem with earthquakes of the type recorded is that they constitute roughly 95 to 99 percent of earthquakes registered in a volcano. They are the daily run of the mill version that almost never lead anywhere. It is common for spatterings of earthquakes like this to form small swarms without any subsequent phreatic detonation happening.
The resolution of our equipment is not good enough to exactly pinpoint pockets of magma, nor are they good enough to tell exactly how fractures form and where they lead during these small earthquake swarms.
Now some people would say that we should close down all volcanoes after every swarm. This would though be a two-edged sword. Yes, it would save a few lives to have almost every single volcano on the planet closed permanently (that would be the effect). The problem is though that the general population would rather quickly stop listening, since there will almost never be a blast after the earthquake swarm.
As I look at the earthquakes at Mount Ontake with a perfect 20/20 hindsight I can say that the earthquake swarm constituted a minute increase in risk for people on top of the volcano. The risk was mainly that there could have been a rockslide or a small edifice collapse, and that the smallest risk was that a phreatic detonation would occur. But the risk was so minute that there was no real reason to cordon off the mountain from visitors.
Now it is time to discuss the failed equipment. First of all, we have to discuss the cost of the equipment. Each seismometer or GPS is extremely expensive, they are also surprisingly fragile. It is a sizeable investment even for such a rich country as Japan to buy one, and one must remember that Japan has as far as I know the largest array of equipment on the planet and they do know how to use them very well.
At any given year half of the equipment will fail, and each time that happens a technician must trek to the piece of the equipment, often climbing or otherwise roughing it all the way. If the technician is lucky he or she can fix the problem on site, otherwise it is just to pack it up and walk back home to wait for spare parts or even a new unit. I probably do not need to tell everyone that after that there will be another trek to put it back into place.
All this repair work takes time and costs quite a bit of dough. There is also a considerable amount of hazard involved for the technician, even if he or she is experienced on how to behave on or around active volcanoes.
At some volcanoes it is even worse, during winter time it can be completely impossible to reach the equipment since the weather makes it too dangerous to even attempt a repair. This was not the case at Mount Ontake, and I am quite sure that repairs was scheduled for the equipment or even underway as the disaster happened.
Now it is time to move forward to the next issue with this particular lawsuit, and that is the not so unimportant question of accurate volcano predictions.
I am a fervent believer in the possibility to accurately predict most volcanic eruptions. This does though come with a couple of caveats. One is of course that the volcano need to be adequately monitored with both equipment and staff. The second caveat is that the volcano need to have been studied for prior behaviour, the better known and the more we know about the style of eruptions and the better the pre-cursors are known, the more exactly we can be when predicting an eruption. All of this was in existence for Mount Ontake.
For a well-known volcano it is possible to accurately predict an upcoming eruption 2 times out of 3, or even better. Also, the bulk of the misses are false positives, so it is seldom that an eruption occurs at volcanoes entirely out of the blue.
So why did the scientists not accurately predict the Mount Ontake catastrophe? Well, here we come to the final and largest caveat of them all. We can only accurately predict eruptions, and there was no eruption at Mount Ontake. It was a steam driven detonation.
An eruption will originate months, years or even decades prior to various versions of lava being hurled out from the volcano. For a hotspot volcano the eruption starts at the boundary between the mantle and the crust, for a subduction volcano it starts at the magma-accretion zone deep under the volcano.
As magma starts to move from the respective places we will see an increase of earthquakes from there leading upwards as magma pushes the crust apart. There will also be signs of inflation in the form of uplift or extension of the area surrounding the volcano. At this stage a volcanologist will know that there is increased unrest under the volcano. Still it will take time before an eruption can occur, most of these intrusions lead to nothing in the end.
Sometimes the magma will continue upwards into an upper magma reservoir (or continue directly upwards). This is also noticeable in the earthquake record and on the GPSes. At this stage there may be changes in gases or fluids in or around the volcano.
As the magma progresses upwards the types of earthquakes will start to change as magma interacts with water tables and volatiles start to dissolute from the magma. It is at this spot it is possible to predict eruptions with an ever-increasing certainty.
And it is here we get to the kernel of the problem. Imagine that the volcano is a peach without a central stone (seed), and that to make it erupt you have to push in a stone into the center of the peach with your hands. The process would of course be very messy and give tangible evidence prior to the stone being in place.
To drive the analogy further, at Mount Ontake the stone was already in place and the peach looked pristine. Let us now imagine that we are looking at two peaches, one with a stone and one without a stone. From the outside they look the same, but only one of them can detonate unexpectedly and sprout things, the other peach is a dud. Regardless there will be no messy evidence trail to follow.
Now if we leave the analogy and talk specifically about Mount Ontake we will see the problem better. On the 28th of October 1979 ten vents opened unexpectedly at the then unmonitored volcano in a phreato-magmatic event hurling ash and steam. This was the first historic volcanic event at Mount Ontake. It has since been followed by a few more, the last prior to 2014 was in 2007.
The problem here is that the signals of the original intrusions happened prior to instalment of equipment, the first pieces of equipment was installed on the 29th of October 1979. The day after the initial phreato-magmatic event.
So, all that messy activity occurred before it was possible to notice what was occurring. For all we know the magma could have been emplaced years or even decades before the phreato-magmatic event. The only thing we can say is that no juvenile magma has risen up into the volcano after the 29th of October 1979. All phreatic detonations or phreato-magmatic detonations have ultimately been caused by activity prior to 1979. What is there then left to detect?
Well, we are left with small smatterings of earthquakes that may or may not lead to a small ash explosion. And the problem is that even small ash explosions can be quite deadly since they always will be unexpected.
The only thing that could have been done was to permanently close the mountain down back in 1979, or after any of the subsequent detonations. With the 20/20 hindsight this would be an option. Problem is that volcanoes are popular to visit and there is a high demand from the population to do so. In the end this is a political decision and not a scientific decision.
A word on volcano tourism
Climbing volcanoes is a deadly business, and I stress the word business. Local merchants love volcano tourists, this is also true for the so-called volcano guides that make quite a good business from bringing tourists and hikers up volcanoes. These guides most often leave quite a bit to wish for in the area of volcanic knowledge, at best you are slightly safer around them than you would be on your own.
I have climbed volcanoes for 20 years all over the planet. With all the expertise I have in mountaineering and volcanology I still prepare myself for days prior to climbing, and I meticulously check both weather and the activity level of the volcano. I also make certain that I am really fit before going and I bring a lot of equipment up the mountain so I will be able survive for a few days.
Almost every single time I climb I see tourists climbing in flip-flops, t-shirts and without water, following “guides” that I just wish to kick off the mountain.
Now let me tell you what climbing up a volcano is like. It is a gruelling multi-hour journey up what can best be described as a lose heap of crap. Every two steps upwards leads to sliding one step down. It will suck the energy out of you and you need several litres of water to not succumb from dehydration.
If it is a high mountain like Acatenango you will need to acclimatize prior to climbing and eat lightly before setting out, otherwise height-decease will likely get to you and you will be hurling your toenails out unless you are secretly a Tibetan Sherpa. If you live close to ocean level anything above 2 000 meters can cause serious height decease unless you are young and fit.
Many people will suffer from heart or respiratory problems that are so bad that they must turn back before reaching the summit, and it is not uncommon that people die from heart attack or a stroke.
If you have forgotten to bring water dehydration is likely to make you lose focus and you will fall down the mountain, or slip and break a leg or your neck.
Around mountains weather is fickle, it can turn in an instant and your t-shirt may be the only thing between you and storm winds with zero-degree rain or snow. Hypothermia is the most common killer on a volcano. You may also quite literally blow straight off the mountain, or be hit by lightning. Another killer is to be struck by sun-blindness due to the intense sunshine and strong UV-light unless you remembered to pack you’re a good set of sun-glasses.
So, you reached the top. You stand there with a slight headache and a grumbly empty stomach while looking at all the marvels of the geological world (or see nothing since there is dense fog). All is peachy anyway. Now it is time to do the entire trek back down, or go to sleep on top of the mountain to trek down the next morning. By now your legs are about as useful as boiled spaghetti.
In the end the risk is small that you will be killed by volcanic activity, the big killers are freezing to death, heart attacks, breaking your neck, crushing your head or any other horrible thing that can happen on top of a mountain.
Anyway, in a couple of months I am going to climb Acatenango. It is a hard mountain to climb since it is steep and high (3976m), it is so high that you are looking down into the eruption in the 3763 meters high Volcán de Fuego.
I currently walk 10 kilometres a day and I am going to lose 15kg before I go. I will spend a full week at 1800 meters’ height to acclimatize myself before going. I am bringing winter gear, well used walking shoes, custom made sunglasses and a hard hat.
The day before I will drink a minimum of 5 litres of water and eat a high carbohydrate diet to fill up the reserves and I will bring another 5 litres of water and 2kg of high fructose candy up the mountain. In the morning I will eat very lightly (mostly sugary stuff). I will also bring headache pills and a very small bottle of vodka against the likely height decease.
And most importantly, the morning before I go I will have a medical check (mandatory and performed by my lovely wife, otherwise she will not allow me to go).
Now, ponder the difference in level of preparation I do before I go up a mountain and the average volcano tourist. And still I acknowledge the dangers of what I do.
My point is that anyone who climb a volcano must be prepared to meet their end, it is really that dangerous. Sometimes I wish there was a ban on climbing most of the world’s volcanoes.
I will though say this, the feeling of reaching the top of an active volcano is like no other on the planet. I would not have it any other way.
I think in the end the point I am trying to make is that anyone who would sue a scientist for me dying doing what I love would be misrepresenting my memory.