Defense against volcanic eruptions

Months after the eruption at Mount Ontake last September, which left at least 57 climbers dead, the government prepares to beef up the nation’s defense against volcanic eruptions, including expanded surveillance, more detailed and timely dissemination of data and warnings on volcanic activities, and the creation of hazard maps and evacuation plans by local authorities. The worst postwar volcanic disaster meanwhile shed light on the serious shortage of volcano experts in Japan, where 7 percent of the world’s active volcanoes are concentrated. Sustained long-term efforts are needed to minimize the loss of lives from future eruptions.

The search for the six people still missing around the 3,067 meter peak of the volcano on the border of Nagano and Gifu prefectures has remained suspended since October due to snow and is not expected to resume until June at the earliest. Authorities still call for caution against possible eruptions in areas within a 2 km radius of the crater.

In reviewing the responses to the disaster, the Meteorological Agency’s Coordinating Committee for the Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions and the Central Disaster Management Council at the Cabinet Office determined that observation of volcanic activities at Ontake and dissemination of relevant data were insufficient. At one point prior to the Sept. 27 eruption, an increase in the number of small volcanic quakes at the mountain was observed. The agency released a warning based on the data, but the level of alert was left unchanged. It is not clear whether the victims who climbed to the peak on that day had grasped the meaning of the information.

Prompt release of easy-to-understand information on volcanic activities is a must. Criteria for raising the alert level will be made known for each of the volcanoes, and raw data of such activities will be disclosed even when the alert level remains unchanged. When a decision on whether to raise the alert level is difficult to make, the agency reportedly plans to err on the safe side.

Climbers and local residents will need to pay close attention to such information and data. Unless they are informed of volcanic activities they cannot make proper judgments, such as evacuating or refraining from climbing. One question is how to ensure that climbers and residents are promptly informed when a volcano erupts or the danger of an eruption suddenly rises. For climbers, receiving emergency alerts on their cellphones via email will be an option, but this method won’t work in areas out of cellphone range.

Japan has 110 active volcanoes, 50 of which will be subject to round-the-clock monitoring, including three that were added to the list following the Ontake eruption. In a revision being prepared to the law on measures to deal with volcanic activities, the government plans to designate areas around the 50 volcanoes as zones requiring caution against eruptions. Local prefectural and municipal governments will be obliged to set up anti-disaster councils comprising the police, firefighters, experts as well as representatives from tourism industry, which will be tasked with creating hazard maps showing the extent of expected damage based on multiple scenario of eruptions and to devise evacuation plans for both residents and tourists.

Such councils already exist in areas around the 47 volcanoes that have so far been the subject of constant surveillance. However, hazard maps have been created for only 37 of them, and only 20 of the 130 municipalities around the volcanoes have prepared concrete evacuation plans.

One factor blamed for the lagging effort for creation of hazard maps and evacuation plans is the shortage of volcano experts in this country. Japan has fewer than 50 researchers involved in the prediction of volcanic eruptions, and such expertise is crucial to the making of plans for defensive measures against eruptions. Experts point out that the Meteorological Agency doesn’t have enough staff capable of properly evaluating volcanic activities while the number of dedicated volcano researchers at Japanese universities is also dwindling.

To ensure the effectiveness of its plans to beef up the measures against volcanic eruptions, the government needs to quickly launch efforts to increase the number of people with expertise in the field.