NZ scientists role in Vanuatu volcano crisis

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The involvement of Massey University staff in monitoring the volcanic activity and preparing for an eruption on the Vanuatu island of Ambae dates back more than five years.

The entire island, inhabited by about 10,000 people, is a 1400m (from sea level) volcano, sometimes called Mt Manaro, with a crater containing two lakes.

It is the largest and potentially most dangerous of the six active volcanoes in the islands of Vanuatu, according to Dr Shane Cronin, director of the Institute of Natural Resources' volcanic risk programme.

Its last big eruption was in 1870 when it produced lahars that wiped out villages to the south and east causing many deaths.

From what is known about that eruption, it appears the activity prior to it was very similar to the activity now being experienced. The first sign of the current activity was in July when there was a visible upwelling of gas and sediment inside the 1.2km diameter.

This was photographed by Dr Cronin who was visiting Vanuatu to monitor the eruption of a volcano on nearby Ambrym island.

Ambae began explosively erupting through Lake Voui, one of the lakes in the crater, last week (November 29).

In 2000 the Vanuatu government asked Dr Cronin to help prepare a disaster management plan for all six volcanoes, with a special emphasis on Ambae, where in 1995 there was a disastrous response to a small eruption.

A large-scale evacuation ordered by panicked authorities that year was only partly completed and turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Dr Cronin and Massey emergency management student Victoria Miller helped local authorities complete a volcano emergency plan for Ambae in 2002.

In 2003, through a New Zealand Aid (part of Foreign Affairs) and Unesco project, Dr Cronin also prepared a volcano alert level system, a series of hazard maps and a national volcanic management plan.

Those plans are being implemented and tested during the current eruptions. They involve local movement of people within the island.

Rather than evacuate everyone off the island, the plan means those living in areas regarded as high risk relocate to parts of the island regarded as less risky because of their altitude, terrain or distance from river valleys, where lahars pose the greatest risk.

The alert level system, based on monitoring equipment and visual observations, gives a clear idea of the status of the eruption and associated hazards.

By keeping locals on the island and as much as possible in their homes it reduces the social disruption and stress that occurred in 1995.

There is a small chance of an eruption coming out the flank of the volcano, where the magma rises to the top then flows back down inside the mountain and finds a path out through a crack on the side.

If that happens, some of the zones considered medium risk could be affected.

In those circumstances authorities would move to evacuate some residents off the island altogether.

Currently Dr Karoly Nemeth from Massey's Institute of Natural Resources is on site and has been climbing the volcano to provide daily status updates by satellite phone to Dr Cronin.

Two seismologists from New Zealand Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Brad Scott and Steve Sherburn, are also working on Ambae.

A Massey PhD student, Sandrine Wallez, is in the Vanuatu capital Port Vila co-ordinating communications between the local Department of Geology and Mines and French, Australian and New Zealand diplomatic representatives.

The current situation is the eruptions are continuing at the same level as in the past several days. Poor weather is hampering visibility but the evacuation from high-risk zones has gone to plan.

There is some concern among residents hosting the evacuees about their ability to provide food, water and shelter if the threat of eruption continues for a lengthy period.

Dr Cronin will provide updates and will travel to Vanuatu should the situation escalate.

He says the lessons learned from this volcanic crisis response are being fed into Massey's ongoing public good science fund project on volcanic risk in the North Island.


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