Inside worlds most dangerous city home to a volcano thats ready to blow

The view of Mayon volcano from Legazpi City is “really magnetic”, Clive Oppenheimer, Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge, said as he recalled the trip to the “bustling” city in the Philippines he undertook a few decades ago before beginning his PhD.

The city, the capital of the Albay province part of the Bicol region, is one of the most sought-after destinations in the country due to the outstanding landscape created by Mayon, described by Professor Oppenheimer as “amazingly symmetrical”.

Recalling his impressions of the city home to more than 200,000 people, Professor Oppenheimer told “What I remember of Legazpi is that it’s a very, very lively city as well as this incredible view of this amazingly symmetrical volcano. You can’t take your eyes off it.”

However, the vicinity of the volcano, which is located some 15km from Legazpi, also represents a danger for its residents and has landed Legazpi in a list, created by the BBC’s Science Focus, which rated the “most dangerous cities” in the world.

In early June, when the 2,463m volcano started “exhibiting magmatic eruption” once again before eventually spewing lava, people outside of the city settled in the red zone within six kilometres of Mayon were asked to move out by the military and more than 110 evacuation centres had been readied for the worst.

READ MORE: Huge 30,000ft ash cloud spewing from volcano prompts red eruption warning

The eruption turned out to be one of the several mild events the extremely active volcano has been displaying for the last few decades. Its last most devastating eruption dates back to 1814, which killed more than 1,200 people, and 1897, another fatal eruption killed more than 300 people.

In late 2006, a typhoon-triggered mudflow composed of pyroclastic material and rocky debris from the eruption that happened a few months prior killed more than 1,200 people.

Despite its deadly past, locals have grown accustomed to Mayon, which is “really symbolic” and holds a “lot of cultural significance” in the Philippines, the expert said.

Local authorities and volcanologists, he added, need to strike a balance between observing the natural phenomenon and knowing when it is time to activate emergency evacuation measures in a way people will be convinced of the threat and not think it is a false alarm.

He explained: “We often focus on the disaster and the threat posed by volcanoes, but most of the time they are tranquil places that are homes to the local spirits and legends connected with them. And so they’re very, very important culturally.

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“And I think locals don’t necessarily fear them, they live with the volcanoes and understand their moods. But, of course, there are things that you can do scientifically to forecast activity and understand the hazards and maybe recognise the signs of a bigger event, say on the scale of the 1814 eruption, which would be more threatening to the communities in the region.

“Mayon is an active volcano, so you would not want to be complacent about the threat. But equally, you wouldn’t want to be alarmist about it, these are places where you need to balance that this is the home of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Given the Philippines lies along the Ring of Fire, an area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, its local authorities and volcanologists are extremely prepared to react to changes they believe may affect settlements and manage several types of disasters.

The proximity to Mayon makes tremors even more frequent for Legazpi City residents, as the movement of the magma inside the volcano may trigger earthquakes. Over the past 30 days alone, experts have recorded more than 40 tremors, although most of them were of a magnitude lower enough not to be detected by locals.

During his trip to the Philippines 35 years ago, Professor Oppenheimer had the unique chance to immediately gauge how experts analyse the activity of Mayon, given a few days before his arrival it had started showing a “glow in the summit”, which often signals a new cycle of eruptive activity and fresh concerns for authorities.

The destruction of Legazpi as a result of an eruption would be the “worst case scenario” when considering volcanic activity, the expert said, as it would need a particularly powerful, and rare, eruption to reach the city.

Explaining which hazards Legazpi and other cities lying next to active volcano face, the professor said: “One hazard is the pyroclastic flow, these hurricane-like flows of ash and rock at very high temperature and very fast-moving that are very destructive, to the built environment or to anything and they follow valleys.

“There are lava flows, which are not so deadly because they’re more slow moving. Mudflows can happen between eruptions, they have more to do with the availability of loose material and the rainfall.

“And then there are the hazards in the air with ash, so if there’s ash activity it can result in the closures of airspace, the ash will fall to the ground, it can be disruptive to communications, infrastructure roads, road transport can be tricky, it can also contaminate water supplies, it can result in damage to crops.

“Again in the worst case scenario, there’s also potential tsunami hazard if one of these pyroclastic flows reaches the sea.

“So there are lots of different hazards and each can play out on different timescales and is affected by different factors including topography and the wind.”

Luckily, Professor Oppenheimer said Mayon has been “quite persistently active” over the last century but through “relatively mild eruptions”.

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