The Ring Of Fire

Van­u­atu's Amaz­ing Vol­ca­noes

Island Life - - Contents - Story by Pa­tri­cia Gil

Van­u­atu’s amaz­ing vol­ca­noes.

Lush trop­i­cal for­est, white sand beaches, a warm and be­nign cli­mate and a myr­iad of lovely bou­tique re­sorts gra­ciously nes­tled in dream lo­ca­tions, have com­bined to turn Van­u­atu into a main tourism des­ti­na­tion. But Van­u­atu has so much more. Van­u­atu is in­deed, unique -with a cap­i­tal U. Its an­cient cul­ture is still alive and well, with vil­lages prac­tis­ing their kas­tom rit­u­als as they did a thou­sand years ago. Cer­e­monies in which peo­ple clothed in grass and feath­ers wildly stamp the ground, vil­lages made of bam­boo and natan­gora, jun­gle that has not been grown in a pot… There are an abun­dance of spec­ta­cles in these is­lands, which are not ‘staged’ for the ben­e­fit of the tourist. Per­haps even more spec­tac­u­lar yet, un­der Van­u­atu’s soil, a bat­tle of ten­sions is be­ing fought, as pres­sure builds and finds re­lease, a young land still breath­ing fire. Van­u­atu is team­ing with ac­tive vol­canos, ev­ery one of them dif­fer­ent, mes­meris­ing, dan­ger­ous and beau­ti­ful.

For those un­fa­mil­iar with Van­u­atu’s vol­canic world, Mount Ya­sur in Tanna is the only name that may come to mind. Ya­sur has been ac­tive for a long time, and with its beauty, dra­matic lava bombs blow­ing high up into the air and easy ac­cess, has taken much of the vol­canic spotlight and the tourism dol­lar. Of late, the coun­try has seen two new­com­ers jump­ing onto the scene and di­vert­ing some at­ten­tion away from Ya­sur; Marum and Ben­bow, lo­cated on the is­land of Am­brym. As with Ya­sur, both of these vol­ca­noes are spec­tac­u­lar, with their lakes bub­bling glow­ing red-hot lava, per­fectly vis­i­ble from the top of their crater. Un­like Ya­sur (reach­able by 4WD to the bot­tom and an easy short trek to the crater), Marum and Ben­bow re­quire a full day trek through the jun­gle, fol­lowed by a long walk across the vol­canic ash plane to reach the crater. Once there, be pre­pared to bear wit­ness to the power of Mother Na­ture. Van­u­atu’s vol­canic un­der­world is pro­lific. It has ac­tive vol­canos on nine dif­fer­ent is­lands and many more dor­mant and ex­tinct vol­ca­noes. The ex­act num­ber of vol­ca­noes is im­pos­si­ble to tell, as they lie hid­den in the jun­gle and un­der the ocean. Van­u­atu sits on the ‘Ring of Fire’ around the rim of the Pa­cific tec­tonic plate, one of the planet’s most ac­tive zones; most of Van­u­atu’s is­lands are the re­sult of vol­canic ac­tiv­ity in the last few mil­lion years. We are stand­ing right now, on mov­ing ground and the earth be­low you is be­ing pushed, lifted and gen­er­ally shaken. Although Ya­sur, Marum and Ben­bow have been ac­tive for a while, they are gen­er­ally sta­ble, bub­bling and spew­ing rocks away, re­leas­ing ten­sion in a gen­er­ally or­derly fash­ion. There are other ac­tive vol­ca­noes how­ever, that be­have in a more tem­per­a­men­tal and un­pre­dictable way. It was not very long ago that Ma­naro Vui, in Am­bae, de­cided it was time to shake things a lit­tle. The big­gest ac­tive vol­cano in Van­u­atu, its sum­mit has two con­cen­tric calderas, the smaller one con­tain­ing three lakes. The vol­cano had fe­ro­cious erup­tions around 420 years ago and again 300 and 120 years ago. Be­cause of the

lakes in its caldera, and the chem­i­cal re­ac­tions that could oc­cur be­tween wa­ter and magma, Ma­naro Vui is con­sid­ered the most dan­ger­ous of Van­u­atu’s vol­ca­noes. Back in 2005, the vol­cano sur­prised us with smoke com­ing from its crater. Small erup­tions en­sued with a change in the colour of the wa­ter in the lake in 2006 and fur­ther small erup­tions in 2011. At present, ac­tiv­ity re­mains con­stant although sta­ble and the alert is level one. Vol­ca­noes are no doubt, un­pre­dictable and dor­mant vol­ca­noes can awaken at any time. This was the case of Mon­tGaret, in Gaua, in the Banks Is­lands, which in 1962 de­cided to wake up af­ter a long pe­riod of in­ac­tiv­ity and at the end of 2009 made its voice heard with more vi­o­lent erup­tions. The ocean turned red and peo­ple from neigh­bour­ing is­lands had to be evac­u­ated. It de­stroyed many food gar­dens and the peo­ple from the Banks are still suf­fer­ing the reper­cus­sions of a rel­a­tively small-scale erup­tion. Other cur­rently ac­tive vol­ca­noes in Van­u­atu are Lopevi, on the in­hab­ited is­land of Lopevi and Sure­ta­matai, in Van­u­atu Lava, Banks. V an­u­atu also has a num­ber of ac­tive sub­ma­rine vol­ca­noes with cur­rently four of them known. One of them is Mount Gemini, which last erupted in 1977. The sub­ma­rine vol­cano Kuwae which last erupted in 1971, is re­spon­si­ble for split­ting, back in 1452, what once was the big is­land of Karua, into the cur­rent is­lands of Epi and Ton­goa. With so much ac­tiv­ity on the vol­cano front, is there any­body re­ally watch­ing and try­ing to keep us safe? This is the job of the Van­u­atu Geo­haz­ards di­vi­sion, part of the Van­u­atu Me­te­o­rol­ogy and Geo­haz­ards Depart­ment; the first and only cen­tre in the Pa­cific that in­te­grates weather, tsunamis, vol­ca­noes and earth­quake de­part­ments un­der the same roof, with a tight ex­change and shar­ing of re­al­time in­for­ma­tion be­tween all di­vi­sions. Since 2006, the Di­vi­sion has re­ceived the at­ten­tion and fund­ing it de­serves, with new equip­ment and a team of ded­i­cated ex­perts whose job is, firstly, to keep the pop­u­la­tion safe by early de­tec­tion and warn­ings of any ge­o­log­i­cal haz­ards and se­condly, to gather in­for­ma­tion and con­tinue fur­ther re­search. At present, the depart­ment is im­ple­ment­ing a tsunami warn­ing sys­tem and earth­quake de­tec­tion sys­tem that will in­cor­po­rate sirens and other alert sys­tems in case of tsunami. The Depart­ment mon­i­tors all of Van­u­atu’s ac­tive vol­ca­noes, with live we­b­cams and sta­tions in six of them. “Be­fore 2011, Van­u­atu did not have real-time vol­cano mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem. So the only data we had was that col­lected by re­search teams while vis­it­ing spe­cific vol­ca­noes un­der dif­fer­ent re­search pro­grams. Hence data was patchy at best and none-ex­is­tent at worst,” ex­plains Es­line Garaebiti, man­ager of Van­u­atu Geo­haz­ards di­vi­sion. With a BSC in vul­canol­ogy and ge­ol­ogy, and not one, but two Mas­ters in Dis­as­ter Mit­i­ga­tion,

and En­gi­neer­ing Ge­ol­ogy, this strong woman surely knows her field. As one of the most highly ed­u­cated women in the coun­try, Es­line is also a fan­tas­tic role model for young girls and an ex­am­ple of what one can ac­com­plish re­gard­less of gen­der. T he po­ten­tial dis­as­trous con­se­quences of the Am­bae erup­tion in 2005, pre­ceded a change in leg­is­la­tion and more funds be­ing di­rected to the mod­erni­sa­tion of the Geo­haz­ards Di­vi­sion. With fund­ing from New Zealand Aid as well as the help of the French Em­bassy, New Cale­do­nian Gov­ern­ment, GEF and GFDRR (Global Fund for Dis­as­ter Risk Re­duc­tion), the Geo­haz­ards di­vi­sion in­stalled its first live we­b­cam and mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion in 2012. Now, the di­vi­sion has we­b­cams and sta­tions on the main ac­tive vol­ca­noes, Marum, Ben­bow, Ya­sur, Lopevi, Ma­naro, Mount Garet and Sure­tanatai. The set up looks im­pres­sive, with screens show­ing live im­ages of the vol­ca­noes and graph­ics de­pict­ing real life data. Syl­vain Tod­man, Geo­haz­ards di­vi­sion’s tech­ni­cal ad­viser since 2008, shows me around the screens, point­ing out what each thing means. From tiny seis­mic move­ments to a range of weather in­for­ma­tion hap­pen­ing Pa­cific-wide, it is high-tech no doubt and the depart­ment is proud to be at the lead­ing edge of geo­haz­ards re­port­ing data in the Pa­cific. The sta­tions not only serve to quickly alert of any emer­gency that could even­tu­ate but also, the data col­lected will al­low the di­vi­sion to study the be­hav­iour of vol­ca­noes and bet­ter pre­dict in the fu­ture, the scale and risk of any vol­canic ac­tiv­ity. One of the chal­lenges that the cen­tre has un­der­taken in the last decade is con­vinc­ing vil­lages to fol­low the cen­tres’ ad­vice in case of an event. Un­til not long ago, vil­lagers liv­ing close to vol­ca­noes re­lied only on their own vis­ual knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence of the vol­cano to make any de­ci­sion per­ti­nent to when and if they should evac­u­ate an area. Vis­ual in­for­ma­tion, although in­for­ma­tive, is of course, not as ac­cu­rate as the data that the cen­tre now re­ceives. Con­vinc­ing vil­lages and chiefs to, for ex­am­ple, move away af­ter the warn­ings from the depart­ment, be­fore they see any sig­nif­i­cant change, has taken some work. Dur­ing the past decade, Es­line has trav­elled to these ar­eas fre­quently, hold­ing meet­ings with vil­lagers and their chiefs, to ex­plain the role of the cen­tre. As a sci­en­tist and a woman, per­suad­ing chiefs was chal­leng­ing to say the least. With time how­ever, she and her team have man­aged to win the con­fi­dence of the vil­lages that live ‘un­der the vol­ca­noes’. Van­u­atu’s vol­ca­noes, at once dan­ger­ous and beau­ti­ful, will con­tinue to mys­tify and mes­merise us all, for­ever re­mind­ing us that we never re­ally were the earth’s mas­ters.

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