Safety on volcanoes: volcanic risk zones around volcano
The volcanic risk is roughly a product of the time spent in a given area and the combined likelyhood of hazards during that time in that particular area, and is reduced by possible factors such as degree of experience, preparedness, and availability of suitable protection or escape possibilities.
The current state of a volcano is extremely variable with time and it has no meaning to define fixed risk zones around volcanoes (e.g. "from 300 to 1000m from the crater") unless one relates such risk zones to a particular period in time and a particular state of the volcano. It follows that the extent of risk zones are variables and can change even during your visit. Volcanoes are always capable of surprises. The following is a distinction of 5 risk zones in qualitative terms:
1) Extreme Risk Zone ("No Go", "Death zone")
There is an area around an active vent where the likelyhood to be killed is extremely high, so high in fact that almost no one who cares about his life ever chooses to enter it at all and outside from suicide attempts there is realistically no good reason to do so.
- In contrast, entering one of Etna's craters is sometimes possible without putting yourself into excessive danger, while at other times it would mean entering the death zone.
- When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, the paths of the debris avalanche and the directed blast defined an elongated death zone streching for more than 25 km away from the volcano!
2) High Risk Zone
This is the area where chances to be injured or killed are considerable (above 1:1000 per hour stay in this zone).
If you choose to enter this zone, you should limit time in this region to the shortest possible and have a strong reason to be there at all!
Examples (not recommended!): you want to take spectacular close-up shots of blocks and volcanic bombs ejected by a moderate explosive eruption. Then you might choose to enter this zone deliberately, for a short time, accepting the risk. To approach the crater of a volcano in strombolian eruption such as Semeru puts you into this high risk zone. In fact, people have been killed at this spot, including volcanologists. The crater rims of most erupting volcanoes are well within this zone.
3) Medium Risk Zone
In this zone, the risk of injury or death from a volcanic eruption is comparable to other activities where an increased risk is commonly accepted (driving a car, skiing etc.). This is the area that is usually most interesting for volcano watchers and volcanologist, since it permits you to be reasonably close while limiting the risk to a degree most people are comfortable with.
- The summit craters of Etna when there is no activity and no detected warning signs of increased concern are always at least in this zone. In 1971, a sudden, unpredicted explosion from one of its summit craters killed 9 tourists and injured several others. None of the mountain guides was injured; their survival indicates also that their experience and proper reactions (dodging from blombs vs. panicking and running away) helped in reducing the risk.
Volcano guides will usually limit their approach to a volcano to this area. In this area, your safety can be greatly increased by experience and knowledge of the volcano and how to interpret its activity, as well as preparedness of proper reactions.
4) Low Risk Zone
In this zone, the volcanic risk in this zone is extremely small and is usually overestimated.
Observing volcanic activity is still possible and rewarding. Typically you are more than a 1 km away from volcanic vents (with effusive or small to moderate explosive activity), but more than 5-10 km away from volcanoes producing moderate to strong explosive activity and you are outside valleys where pyroclastic flows could be channeled.
Only exceptional eruptions still affect this zone, but they do so frequently enough that the risk for immobile goods (houses) is considered by most as being too large to build here. Unfortunately, it happens around many volcanoes, especially in underdevelopped countries, that land pressure (or people's forgetting about the volcanic risk) is so high that this zone is often densely populated. This is the zone where evacuations often occur and where an eruption's toll on property can be immense.
Examples of this zone include the villages around Merapi volcano in Indonesia, but also the densely habitated area around Vesuvius volcano in Italy.
The volcanic risks for people in this zone is so small that other often much underestimated risks become in fact much more important, in particular risks connected to weather and general mountain situations: most accidents in this zone are caused by: lost orientation, lightning, accidents on rocks and cliffs, dehydration, hydrothermia, sunburn etc.
5) Safe Zone (habitation zone)
In this area, usually many kilometers from the craters, only exceptional eruptions cause damage; such eruptions typically occurr at intervals of many decades or centuries or even longer. The volcanic risk to life is neglectable here and the risk for property is small enough that these areas are often inhabited. The volcanic risk, however, is still large enough that critical structures of high value (e.g. nuclear reactors) cannot be accepted in this zone. Examples are the villages around Etna's slopes, the city of Seattle, the town of Hilo or the village of Stromboli.
Variability of risk zones
It is extremely important to understand that these risk zones are no constants. Unlike hazard maps, their extent on a map is not constant and varies with time. During times of repose of a volcano, the safer risk zones may strech up much further upslope than when the volcano is active, or showing signs of increased likelyhood to erupt. What was a low risk zone before the volcano becomes restless, and finally active, can turn into the extreme risk zone.
Most parts of Mauna Loa can be considered a low risk zone when the mountain is not erupting and not showing signs of an impending eruption. But erutive fissures and big lava flows can occurr even at low elevations, more than 10 km away from its summit. During such an eruption, many previously safe areas turn into high and extreme risk zones.
Volcanic mud flows (lahars) are capable of traveling many tens of km down through valleys on the side of volcanoes and onto plains. After new eruptions that deposit much fresh and loose material on its slope, rain-falls can turn this into lahars, or eruptions that cuase melting of ice in its upper parts can do the same. Valleys extending from the slopes of such volcanoes quickly turn into high-risk zones after periods of new activity or strong rainfalls and can extend up to 100 km away from the volcano.
When Mt. St. Helens became active and finally erupted in 1980, the previously safe areas, especially around its northern flanks, turned into high risk zones and were evacuated. When the exceptional lateral blast occurred, it devastated an area of up to 30 km away from the volcano.
Your personal risk
To see a volcanic eruption, some of nature's most spectacular displays, is a most impressive experience. But your decision of climbing an active volcano and approaching active vents should be based on a reasonable risk-gain analysis. If you choose to enter one of the higher risk zones in particular, you must make that decision at your own responsability.
Normally, unless you spend a lot of time in one of the high or extreme risk zones of a volcano, your chances of being killed by a volcano are very small, much smaller than other risks. Remember that this risk can often be greatly reduced by proper preparation and experience, and you should limit your time in these areas.
If you live near a volcano, you are probably either in the low risk zone or hopefully in the safe zone. In both cases, provided you know about the potential hazards in case of a major eruption and are prepared to leave that area if necessary, your risk of injury or death from the volcano is much less than from other natural hazards such as fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes in other parts of the world. In fact, with regard to these, volcanoes cause the least damage.
But you should know that changes in the behaviour of the volcano can turn the area where you life into a high risk zone and you should accept the possibility that the town or the place you live in could need to be evacuated one time.
The content above reflects our personal opinion on this subject only. We cannot assume any responsability about the your decisions and actions if they are based in any way on the contents of these pages. In particular, we strongly recommend never to enter any of the high and extreme risk zones.