The risks of visiting volcanoes

In 1993, Stanley Williams survived a close-encounter with a volcano. A volcanologist, he was standing on the rim of Colombia's Galeras volcano when it erupted with little warning. Six of his scientific colleagues and three tourists were killed. Williams fled down the mountain's slope — until flying rocks and boulders broke both his legs. With a fractured skull, he managed to stay conscious enough to huddle behind some other large boulders and dodge flying debris until the eruption ended and his grad students rescued him.

Williams and the other scientists were there to study Galeras, and hopefully get a better idea of what signals predicted the onset of eruptions.

This is something we still don't understand well.

While volcanologists have identified some signals — like distinctive patterns of small earthquakes — that increase the likelihood of an oncoming eruption, those signals aren't foolproof predictions. There are still volcanoes like Galeras that give no warning. And volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens. In 2004, that volcano gave signals that it would erupt. And it did. Sort of. The Seattle Times described it as "two small burps and a lava flow". Basically, the signals don't always precede an eruption, and even when they do happen it doesn't tell you much about how big any ensuing eruption will be.

And that presents an interesting question, writes Erik Klemetti at Wired's Eruptions blog. How close to volcanoes should tourists really be? That's a question with real-world applications. This year, New Zealand's White Island volcano has been ... rather grumbly. Even as tourist boats continued to ferry people over for a view of the crater.

There has always been a fragile relationship between volcanoes and tourism. Volcanic features are some of the most fascinating in the world – just look at the millions of people who visit Yellowstone or Crater Lake National Parks for but two examples of hundreds of volcanic tourist attractions around the world (and that doesn’t even consider all the extinct volcanoes or volcanic deposits that can create amazing landscapes as well). However, with the splendor of volcanic features comes the danger that you, as a tourist, are visiting an active volcano. Sometimes, that danger is low, where either the volcano has been dormant for thousands of years, but the signs of magma beneath are still visible. However, the danger can appear to be low in some places but in reality, you are literally putting your lives in the hands of tour operators when you make the visit.

Read the full story

Read Stanley Williams' account of surviving the Galeras volcano

Photo by Michael Rogers, via GFDL and CC


  1. A volcanologist, he was standing on the rim of Colombia’s Galeras volcano when it erupted with little warning…

    That’s nothing compared to the risks of being a Vulcanologist. You never know when some angry Romulan is going to come from the future and suck the whole planet into a black hole.

    1. Don’t forget volcanologist David A. Johnston, who was probably the first human to die in that eruption. His last transmission from the mountain: “This is it!! (*BOOM*)”

      Though if you listen to the recording, he actually sounded more excited than scared of his impending death. I guess that would be kind of a cool way to go if you’re in that line of work.

      1. As boingboing’s token commenter-geologist I can confirm that this would be the way to go for those of us in this line of work (assuming it is necessary that our time be cut short). 

        Every geologist knows about Johnston and he’s a romantic tragic figure. He’s obviously not the only geologist to have died in the field, but his excited “This is it!” really strikes a chord. 

  2. I have been involved with analysis of crack growth in military aircraft. Basically you test an airframe to destruction and measure the growth of cracks as failure approaches, then you measure the sizes of cracks in operational airframes to predict failure. I wonder if the same sort of thing could be done with buried instruments inside rock?

    1. If you can find the cracks, sure, that sounds excellent.  With horizontal drilling rigs, they could put the instrumentation in from a safe distance.

    2. In the lab, rock can be stress-analyzed in an identical manner, and fracture patterns and so on are completely predictable. In a real location, though, all of that goes almost completely out the window – the composition of rocks that form mountains, volcanoes etc. is not uniform and on such huge scales it’s near-impossible to map with enough detail (especially subsurface) to make such an analysis. And though cracks (faults, joints etc. in geology) are important, they’re secondary features and do not necessarily predict anything.

      Your idea is actually in practice in a slightly different situation – there are centimeter-accurate GPS stations in place along either side of major faults and movement can be clearly seen (on quite short time scales) and stresses inferred. Despite that, in most cases this information does not provide the sort of detailed predictions that would actually be helpful. We need to go deeper… literally, sensors would have to be placed many kilometers below the surface and even then there’d be no guarantee that we’d get anything usable to make predictions. 

      Along the same lines, though, there are similar sensors in place on volcanoes that detect minute deformation. There typically isn’t abnormal deformation until right before visible deformation occurs, though (like lava domes in the Cascades), and even once there is visible deformation there’s no way to know what the size of the eruption will be (hence the uncertainty surrounding the more recent Mt. St. Helens eruption).

  3. If you want to do something risky, as long as you’re not endangering someone else, whose business is it to say no you can’t? 

    1. There are lawyers who say that it’s going to cost a lot of money when the bad thing happens. Then the insurance companies say no, you can’t.

    2. I think it’s more about … do those tourists really understand that they’re doing something risky? Or do they think, “Well, they wouldn’t offer a tour if it was actually dangerous, right?” 

      1. I know the feeling.  I recently went on a ‘moderate’ cave exploration trip with half a dozen other individuals (strangers at the time).  when we went in we all thought, “yeah, we signed a release, but it can’t be *that* dangerous”

        while no-one was injured (beyond bruised knees that took two weeks to heal, and some brief claustrophobia), when we came out of that cave we were all amazed what we did was in any way legal.

        just a gentle reminder that ‘tour guide’ != safe stroll through disneyland.

        (p.s. i’m so going back to do the advanced cave trip :D )

  4. In the mid-1970s I gave a talk at a scientific meeting in Catania, Sicily.  Mt. Etna (an active volcano) was about 20 miles north.  You could hear it rumble sporadically throughout the day, and there was a continuous plume of ash rising in the sky.

    A bus ran from Catania to Mt. Etna for tourists to visit the edge of the volcano.  I never went there, but while I was there, it erupted and killed several tourists standing on the edge.

  5. I was attending a volcanology conference in Chile some years back and on one of the days upwards of 200 attendees took the day off to ascend Volcan Villaricca. It’s a common trip for mulitple tour companies in the area and there is even a ski resort on the mountain. Still, being up there with all of those people milling around the steaming crater rim gave me pause. But then the ski down was epic. One of my best days on skis ever, so, yeah, I would do it again.

  6. I don’t think you can regulate access to geologically active areas. If you did, almost the entirety of the US northwest would be off limits because when Yellowstone decides to go pop, everyone for a thousand miles is going to get incinerated or buried (the rest of us gain the dubious honor of dying from starvation as the skies are clogged with ash and our food supplies disappear).

    The earth moving is just one of those things that you have to accept happens, and if you decide to live on top of a fault or in the shadow of a smoking caldera, you need to understand that you might get erased with little to no warning.

    1. I don’t think you can regulate access to geologically active areas […] The earth moving is just one of those things that you have to accept happens, and if you decide to live on top of a fault or in the shadow of a smoking caldera, you need to understand that you might get erased with little to no warning.

      That’s one approach. On the other hand, the mandatory evacuation of Mt. St. Helens (which took place amid considerable resistance) saved thousands of lives.

    2. Many people do not choose to live in geologically active areas but are forced onto less stable land by overpopulation and poverty.
      Geologists are now predicting million plus death tolls from ever expanding ‘third world’ cities built on faults when a big earthquake does occur.

      1. Many people do not choose to live in geologically active areas but are forced onto less stable land by overpopulation and poverty.

        And many others may live in a geologically active area without understanding the risk because that risk is either unknown or hasn’t been clearly communicated to them.

  7. ‘There are still volcanoes like Galeras that give no warning.’

    Hi Maggie,

    Actually Galeras did give warnings of an imminent eruption. It had been producing long-duration seismic signals (known as B-type events) produced by magma surging in the volcano. B-type events had been used to accurately predict an eruption at Mount Redoubt before the Galeras eruption. A prediction of an imminent eruption at Galeras were made by the geophysicist Bernard Chouet who had been studying an ever-increasing number of B events in the volcano which suggested that it was pressurising before an eruption. But for reasons that still aren’t clear, it wasn’t heeded. There’s a lot of bitterness amongst the survivors and relatives of the people killed in the Galeras crater, much of it targeted at Williams himself for not erring on the side of safety.

    And yes, visiting any active volcano is inherently dangerous. I spent a day on Hekla in southern Iceland this summer and we had to make calls every 30 minutes as the volcano is considered liable to erupt at any time and it gives almost no warning. Worth it for the view though.

  8. I live in Auckland, NZ, which is built on top of an active magma chamber about 50-100 km beneath the city. Last time it blew was only 600 years ago. When it blows again we’ll be well fucked.

  9. I moved from Marin County, where I was a few miles from the San Andreas fault, to the Big Island, where everything in sight was created by our still active volcanos.  I guess if I wanted to spend the money, I could have someone probe my brain and tell me I have a latent death wish.  Whatever.  My dream is to die by meteor impact, but that is a little tough to position oneself for.  I’ll accept pretty much whatever fate comes my way, but cross my fingers for expediency over a slow demise.

    1. I lived in SF for 25 years, a few miles from the San Andreas. And then moved to Palm Springs, a few miles from the San Andreas. I didn’t even realize it until I looked at a satellite map.

    2.  The one good thing is that, due to the composition of the magma, the Hawaiian volcanoes are relatively well-behaved.  For some values of well-behaved; you could ask the warriors who got caught in a gas eruption several centuries back if that means completely predictable.

  10. The episode of Seconds From Disaster on the Mt St Helens eruption documents a number of people nearby at the time.

    Most had no idea what was going on and weren’t where anyone expected the impact to go.  Some survived, others didn’t.

  11. My arrangement with Hawaii for the last few decades has been that they turn off the volcano a week or two before I arrive and turn it on a week or two after I leave.  The last time I was there, they slipped up, and there was a bit of eruption going on, but it was emitting enough poisonous gasses that the park people wouldn’t let us hike out to where we could see it.  (Cool orange glow in the distance at night, though.)

  12.  As part of the collective insanity of the human species, I want to get out to Hawaii and stand on a volcano. Iceland too. New Zealand if I can make it.

    But for some reason Mt. Etna gives me the horrors and is not on my to-do list, and Yellowstone and Crater Lakes also give me pause. Go figure WHY those get more respect from me than the others.

  13. There’s a section in Babbage’s “Passages from the life of a philosopher” about a trip to Vesuvius – in his typical full-of-himself style. I’ve only found a scan, so I’m thinking about retyping the entire chapter. In the meantime, have the latter half, which captures his somewhat lacking sense of self-preservation.

    (Source: )

    [He is in the main crater and has made some measurements and taken some samples, and also lit his walking-stick on fire by accident. ]

    I applied myself to observe and register the eruptions of the little embryo volcano at the farther extremity of the elliptical plain.

    These periodical eruptions interested me very much. I proceeded to observe and register them, and found they occurred at tolerably regular intervals. At first, I performed this operation at respectful distance and out of reach of the projected red-hot scoria. But as I acquired confidence in the general regularity, I approached from time to time more nearly to the little cone of scoria produced by its own eruptions.

    I now percieved an opening in this little cone close to the perpendicular rock of the interior of the great crater. I was very anxious to see real fluid lava; so immediately after an eruption, I rushed to the opening and thus got within the subsidiary crater. But my curiosity was not gratified, for I observed, about forty or fifty feet below me, a huge projecting rock, which being somewhat in advance, effectively prevented me from seeing the lava lake, if any such existed. I then retreated to a respectful distance of this infant volcano to wait for the next explosion.

    I continued to note the intervals of time between these jets of red-hot matter, and found that from ten to fifteen minutes was the range of these intervals of repose. Having once more reconnoitred the descent into the little volcano, I seized the opportunity of the termination of one of the most considerable of its eruptions to run towards the gap and cautiously pick my way down to the rock which hid from me, as I supposed, the liquid lava. I was armed with two phials, one of common smelling salts, and the other containing a solution of ammonia. On reaching the rock, I found it projected over a lake which was really filled by liquid fiery lava. I immediately laid myself down, and looking over its edge,  saw, with great delight, lava actually in a state of fusion.

    Presently I observed a small bubble swelling up on the surface of the fluid lava: it became gradually larger, but did not burst. I had some vague suspicion that this indicated a coming eruption; but on looking at my watch I was assured that only one minute had elapsed since the termination of the last. I therefore watched its progress; after a time the bubble slowly subsided without breaking.

    I now found the heat of the rock on which I was reposing, and the radiation from the fluid lava, almost insupportable, whilst the sulphurous effluvium painfully affected my lungs. On looking around, I fortunately observed a spot a few feet above me, from which I could, in a standing position, get a better view of the lake, and perhaps suffer less inconvenience from its vapours. Having reached this spot, I continued to observe the slow formation and absorption of these vesicles of lava. One of them soon appeared. Another soon followed at a different  part of the fiery lake, but, like its predecessor it disappeared as quietly.

    Another swelling now arose about half way distant from the centre of the cauldron, which enlarged much beyond its predecessors in point of size. It attained a diameter of about three feet, an then burst, but not with any explosion. The waves it propagated in the fiery fluid passed on to the sides, and were hence reflected just as would have happened in a lake of water of the same dimensions.

    This phenomenon happened several times, some of the bubbles being considerably larger in size, and making proportionally greater disturbance in the liquid of this miniature crater. I would gladly have remained longer, but the excessive heat, the noxious vapors, and the warning of my chronometer forbade it. I climbed back through the gap by which I had descended, and rushed as fast as I could to a safe distance from the coming eruption.

    I was much exhausted by the head, although I suffered still greater inconvenience from the vapours. From my observations of the eruptions before my descent into this little crater, I had estimated that I might safely allow myself six minutes, but not more than eight, if I descended into the crater immediately after an eruption.

    If my memory does not fail me, i passed about six minutes in examining it, and the next explosion occurred ten minutes after the previous one. On my return to Naples I found that a pair of thick boots I had worn on this expedition were entirely destroyed by the heat, and fell to pieces in my attempt to take them off.

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