The Taal Volcano, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the capital Manila on the island of Luzon, began erupting on Sunday, sending ash up to nine miles (14 kilometers) into the air and prompting warnings of a possible “explosive eruption.”
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) recorded 335 earthquakes in the area of the volcano — which is one of the country’s most active — since Sunday and said more activity is expected in the next few days.
“These new strong, continuous earthquakes that we are now experiencing are due to fissuring, which means that there really is magma that is still making its way out of Taal,” said Mariton Bornas, Chief of Volcano Monitoring and Eruption, Protection Division of PHIVOLCS.
Lava fountains generated dark gray steam-laden plumes that reached 800 meters (2624 feet) high, according to the institute. Volcanic lightening was also visible.
The institute said that new vents had opened up on the volcano’s northern flank and fresh ashfall had landed on nearby towns.
Photos from the eruption show ash mixing with rain, creating a thick black sludge that blanketed cars, streets, and homes in some towns. Ash is even heavier than snow, meaning excessive pile-ups, especially when mixed with rain, can cause roofs to collapse.
In a briefing with the media on Tuesday, Director of PHIVOLCS Renato Solidum said they cannot definitively tell when the eruptions will stop.
The alert level for the volcano remains at four, meaning an “explosive eruption” could happen in the coming hours or days. Its highest alert level is five, indicating an eruption is taking place.
People warned not to return to their homes
Taal Volcano isn’t actually very big — but it’s considered among the world’s most dangerous, owing to the number of people that live in its immediate vicinity, said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University.
There are two concentric zones of concern around the volcano. Around 459,000 people reside within a dangerous zone with a 14-kilometer (8.6 miles) radius around the volcano, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), while more than 930,000 people live in a wider 17-kilometer (10.5 miles) danger zone.
PHIVOLCS has requested a “total evacuation” of everyone within the larger 17-kilometer (10.5 miles) radius around the volcano.
Tens of thousands of people from Batangas and Cavite provinces sought shelter in 118 temporary evacuation centers set up by the authorities on Tuesday. The total number of evacuees is unknown, however, with many people choosing to stay with family members and relatives in other parts of the country.
In the wake of reports that some people were retuning to their homes close to the volcano to tend farms or livestock, officials appealed to the public to stay away.
Bornas said fissures had opened up within the immediate danger zone on Tuesday and appealed to people not to go back to their homes “as tremors are becoming frequent and fissures noted in many parts.”
“PHIVOCS strongly reiterates the need for the evacuation of Volcano Island, Taal Lake and the high-risk areas surrounding the volcano … located within the 14 kilometer radius from the main crater,” she said.
Federal authorities are helping the response and evacuation operation. The army sent 20 military vehicles and 120 personnel to help affected residents, and the secretary of national defense said helicopters were on standby to evacuate people.
The defense secretary also urged residents near the eruption to evacuate, and not to hesitate in leaving their homes. Aid organizations like the Red Cross are assisting on the ground by sending rescue vehicles and supplies.
On Sunday, the volcanic ash spread as far as Quezon City north of Manila, prompting the suspension of all flights at the capital’s international airport. By Tuesday, normal operations resumed, according to Airport General Manager Ed Monreal, though it’s possible flights may be suspended again if Taal’s activity increases.
The airport remains congested with people trying to get on flights, Monreal added.
The ash fall has also damaged crops in the area such as corn and coffee, and continues to threaten fish stocks, said Agriculture Secretary William Dar. Batangas province supplies Metro Manila 40% of its harvest of fish, including tawilis or “live sardines” only found in the province.