There’s potential, if not immediate, danger.
Travelers love the thrill of seeing a volcano up close and personal. From lava hunting and climbing to sledding and abseiling down an active volcano, adventure seekers have found ways to add a twist to their sightseeing tours. The imposing volcanoes are a dramatic sight, even more so when they’re spewing smoke and ash. But the dangers of living close to an active volcano are real.
Just this month, the eruption of the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the Pacific has caused devastation in the remote archipelago of Tonga. This was the biggest volcanic activity recorded in 30 years on the planet. It triggered a tsunami that hit the archipelago and the main island of Tongatapu was severely damaged while the neighborhoods were also covered in ash. The waves were also felt on the west coast of the United States, as well as Peru, Japan, and New Zealand.
There are many other cities in the world that are in the path of volcanic eruptions. There are also small communities and villages at the foothills of these volcanoes that face imminent danger from smoke, ash, pyroclastic flows (a hot mix of gas, rock, and ash that travels quickly) and lahars (mudflow), earthquake, and/or tsunami.
DID YOU KNOW?The Pacific Ring of Fire is an arc that stretches over 25,000 miles from South America to New Zealand. It has 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes and 90% of earthquakes happen here. The U.S., Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Peru, Indonesia, Chile, and Papua New Guinea are all part of this belt.
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The Kīlauea volcano on the Big Island is the most active volcano in Hawai‘i. It has been erupting on and off since September 2021, but the lava activity is confined to the crater. It is a major tourist attraction and travelers love to see the magnificent steaming volcano, but some areas of the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park are closed and caution is advised. In 2018, the volcano caused a lot of destruction in the Puna district of the island, but it’s not the only one that concerns geologists. The Big Island has five volcanoes, two of them in the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The second is the largest active volcano on Earth, Mauna Loa. When it last erupted in 1984, the lava came within four miles of the city of Hilo, 30 miles away.
Mount Vesuvius is just 7.5 miles from Naples. This is the same volcano that flooded Pompeii with pyroclastic flows and consumed the city. Naples, a city with 3 million people, is in the line of sight if it erupts, so it’s continuously monitored. But that’s not the only threat to the Italian city.
On the other side, just 9 miles west of Naples, is a collection of 24 craters in a caldera along the Bay of Naples. Campi Flegrei, or “Fiery Fields” is showing signs of waking up, releasing puffs of steams into the air and reeking of sulfur. Since the suburbs of Naples are sitting on top of it, even a small eruption can be catastrophic. It is considered one of the highest risk volcanic areas in the world, so if you’re planning a visit to Pozzuoli, you know you’re in the center of it all.
In Italy, another city is standing at the feet of a volcano, Sicily. Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, often shuts down the airport because of ash. It blew off ash and lava in 2021 in a spectacular show that impressed the world, but caused no destruction.
Peru’s second-largest city, Arequipa, is flanked by three volcanoes, El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. The snowcapped El Misti is active and dominates the landscape of the White City—called so because buildings and homes are made of white volcanic stones (sillar). It’s beautiful to see the perfect conical shape of the 19,100-foot volcano, but with the city center just 11 miles from this behemoth, there’s reason to worry. A major eruption was noted in the 15th century, but the last one happened in 1985, which was relatively minor, but scientists are on their guard for another.
Another looming problem is the Sabancaya volcano, less than 50 miles away. Volcanic activity was recorded in 2018 with explosions, earthquakes, and the release of sulfur dioxide gas.
WHERE: The Philippines
Mount Mayon rises above Legazpi. One of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, it attracts hikers who climb up its summit, but the activity isn’t without risks. In 2013, five climbers were killed by sudden ash and rock eruption. In 2018, more than 70,000 people were evacuated from surrounding areas as the volcano violently started spewing lava, steam and ash plumes, and sulfur dioxide. The volcano has awakened more than 50 times in 500 years and it’s particularly perilous to the farmers who grow crops on the fertile slopes.
WHERE: Democratic Republic of Congo
Another powerful and active volcano burst in red hot flames in DR Congo’s city of Goma in 2021. Mount Nyiragongo is situated just six miles from the city. Thousands of people were evacuated as the lava spilled into the outskirts of Goma, killing 32 people and destroying homes and buildings.
This isn’t the first time that the lakeside city has faced the wrath of this volcano. In 2002, it killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless.
DID YOU KNOW?More than 800 million people in the world live within 60 miles of an active volcano.
Japan is home to more than 100 active volcanoes—7% of the world’s total. Since it lies in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the country experiences intense volcanic and seismic activities. Mount Unzen, an active volcano in the Shimabara prefecture, is one of the active volcanoes in the country that poses a serious threat to the city of Shimabara at its foot. In 1991, pyroclastic flows killed 43 people in the city when the volcano erupted. Scientists, journalists, and firefighters also perished. The worst volcanic disaster in Japan’s history also came from this mountain when it blew its top in 1792 and triggered a landslide and tsunami that caused 15,000 casualties.
The picture-perfect island of Santorini is an active volcano that last spewed in 1950. Around 1620 B.C., a volcanic eruption submerged a part of the island, leaving behind a caldera—the cliffs of the island of Thera are the rim of the caldera. In the 18th century, more eruptions formed the two uninhabited islands in the center, Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni. Visitors can go on a hiking tour of the still active Nea Kameni.
However, it’s the active submarine volcano of Kolumbo in the Aegean Sea that’s more worrisome. Last erupted in 1650, it is emitting fluids and gases and has the potential to cause a devastating tsunami.
WHERE: New Zealand
Did you know that Auckland is built on a volcanic field? There are 53 volcanic centers in the Auckland Field, which is an area of 360 square kilometers (139 square miles). The most recent eruption happened 600 years ago at Rangitoto and many small cones have become parks. Geonet—which monitors geological hazards in New Zealand—warns, “Auckland’s existing volcanoes are unlikely to become active again, but the Auckland Volcanic Field itself is young and still active. An eruption in the Auckland Volcanic Field is a low probability event on human timescales but would have high consequences.”
The famous Mount Fuji is the highest peak in Japan. It’s one of the nation’s three holy mountains and a symbol of the nation. There are multiple trails to ascend to the top of the mountain—something that brings climbers from all over the world. But the volcano is still classified as active. If it were to erupt, the city of Gotemba at its base would face severe consequences. In fact, a recent projection by the Central Disaster Management Council revealed that the volcanic ash would paralyze Tokyo (60 miles away) and leave millions stranded within hours. The worst-case scenario predicts 17.3 billion cubic feet of ash would fall over Tokyo, render streets undrivable, suspend flights and trains, damage houses, disrupt phone services, and cause respiratory problems. Lava might not reach the city limits, but ash could continue falling for days or even weeks!
Located in the Andes mountains, the conical Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. The capital city of Quito is just 31 miles from the volcano, while there are also local farming communities at its foothills that are in danger from the snow-covered stratovolcano. In all, 325,000 could be affected by its eruption that could melt the ice caps and result in mudflows. In 1877, the eruption destroyed the nearby town of Latacunga.
The volcano rumbled to life in 2015 and spurted ash and gas into the air, prompting evacuations. It quietened down in 2016, but it is still closely monitored.
Indonesia has more than 130 active volcanoes because it sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the world’s most seismically and volcanically active zone. Those who live on the fertile slopes of these volcanoes are at most risk.
As recently as December 2021, Mount Semeru on Java Island erupted, killing at least 23 people and covering the villages of Lumajang in hot ash and mud. In 2017, Mount Agung poured ash all over Bali, stranding tourists as the airports shut down due to ashes. Although Denpasar, Kuta, and Seminyak were in no immediate danger (the volcano is 43 miles away), locals from nearby villages were evacuated. After the last eruption in 1963, more than 1,000 people were killed due to lava flow and poisonous gases.
Another active volcano in Bali is Mount Batur, which is popular with hikers and known for its lake.