Smoke rises Monday from Indonesia's Mount Merapi, one of the world's most volatile and dangerous volcanoes. Thousands of people living on the volcano's fertile slopes began evacuating as Merapi started erupting Tuesday, sending hot ash and rocks high in the air. (See an Indonesia map.)
"The energy is building up. ... We hope it will release slowly," Indonesian-government volcanologist Surono told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "Otherwise we're looking at a potentially huge eruption, bigger than anything we've seen in years."
Meanwhile, officials in western Indonesia are racing to deal with the aftermath of a deadly tsunami that struck the remote Mentawai Islands late Monday, killing at least 113 and leaving hundreds more missing. The killer wave, triggered by a magnitude 7.7 earthquake centered offshore of the island of Sumatra, had many recalling the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated the same region.
While it's unclear whether Monday's earthquake and the Merapi volcano eruption are linked, neither event is uncommon in Indonesia. The archipelago sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that stretches from the Pacific coasts of the Americas through Japan and into Southeast Asia. (See "Deadly Java Quake Highlights "Ring of Fire" Dangers.")
Merapi is considered the most active volcano in Indonesia, according to the Jakarta Post. The peak last erupted in 2006, when showers of hot debris killed two people. A 1994 eruption caused the volcano's dome to collapse, killing 70, and an eruption in 1930 killed more than 1,300.
Indonesian women carry bundles of grass to feed their cattle as the Mount Merapi volcano smokes in the background on October 20.
Despite advance warning of the explosive eruptions that spewed from Merapi on October 26, many villagers chose to stay on the volcano until as late as possible to tend to crops and livestock, according to the New York Times.
Priyadi Kardono, spokesperson for Indonesia's Disaster Management Agency, said that about half of the people in the threatened area had been evacuated by the time the eruptions started, although a baby died of smoke inhalation during the journey down the mountain.
A closeup of the peak of Mount Merapi shows smoke billowing from the volcano on October 26. Volcanologists monitoring the peak recorded a doubling of seismic activity and increased deformation of the lava dome between the Thursday and Sunday before the Tuesday eruption, the Jakarta Post reported.
On Monday Indonesian officials put the region on the highest alert possible and ordered evacuations—hours before the volcano erupted.
Tuesday's eruptions could be a warning of a huge blast—or a sign that the volcano will slowly let off steam. "It's too early to know for sure," government volcanologist Gede Swantika told the AP. "But if it continues like this for a while, we are looking at a slow, long eruption."
Photograph by Dwi Oblo, Reuters
Past Pyrotechnics on Merapi
Living up to its name, Mount Merapi—"fire mountain" in Javanese—erupts in June 2006.
Carving its slopes with steppes, farmers have set up croplands and villages as far up Mount Merapi's ridges as possible (file photo). The attraction of Merapi's rich volcanic soils is apparently greater than the threat of burning lava, toxic gas, or smothering mud from one of the word's most active and dangerous volcanoes.
Festooned with fake money and surrounded by offerings of corn and cabbage, a miniature "volcano" gets a kingly conveyance to a river near Mount Merapi (file photo). Traditionally, the entire array is tossed into the water to appease the active Indonesianvolcano.
To mystically minded Javans, it pays to stay on Merapi's good side. As a major source of the island's fertile, ash-infused soil, the mountain occasionally threatens death but almost constantly brings life.