You probably can’t imagine living near a volcano, that too an active one. But there are many people in the world who live in the shadow of the simmering volcanoes which might erupt at any time, or maybe the volcano has been dormant do long that people think it won’t ever erupt. There are many dangers of living near volcano, but there has to be some benefits as well. Otherwise, why would people continue to live near active volcanoes, putting their lives at risk?
What are the dangers of living near volcano and why people still do?
Living near a volcano means the residents know about the dangers, and probably have even suffered from eruption/s. If people live far enough, there may be time for them to get out of the way of swirling rivers of hot lava, and the volcanic ash and smoke etc. First, let’s take a look at the zones near an active volcano:
‘No go’, Extreme risk zone
This is the area near the active vent where the threat of death is quite high, and almost no one ever ventures into this zone. This zone cannot be measured exactly as it varies from volcano to volcano, and sometimes the extreme and high risk zones merge. If you want to avoid the dangers of living near volcano, you should live as far as possible from this zone.
High risk zone
In this zone, there is more than one in thousand chance of getting killed if you stay there for more than an hour (or less, depending on how active the volcano is!). You’ll know you’re in the High Risk area if you see volcanic projectiles falling here. This zone is usually a km from the vent, for dormant volcanoes. There’s no reason to be in this zone, unless you’re one of those die-hard photographers!
Medium risk zone
It’s usually 500-1000 m away from the volcano, and is comparatively safe. But sometimes, as in 1971, when Mt Etna suddenly erupted, 9 tourists were killed and others were injured. The guides however were not injured which speaks volumes about the experience of ‘dodging’ lava bombs, while living near volcano risk zone. You should never sleep or camp in this zone.
Low risk zone
This zone is 5-10 km from the crater and you’re far from the valleys where pyroclastic flows might be channeled. This is also the zone where a false sense of security leads people to build permanent structures (homes and shops), and is usually the zone from where the most evacuation and property damage happens. One of the ways how to reduce risk is to stay further away from this property.
The safe zone is the area where people live and work. It’s situated a long distance from the volcano, and unless there are huge eruptions, people are quite safe in this area. The people living near volcano risk zone have to be always alert however, and ready to evacuate if the need arises.
Dangers due to volcanoes
Volcanic ashes, toxic gases and smoke
When volcanoes erupt, there are a lot of toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen halides. These gases are hazards to people, animals, agriculture and property and during an eruption, there is a high concentration of the gases in the air. CO2 can be poisonous to humans and animals, sulphur dioxide irritates respiratory system and the eyes.
Hydrogen sulphide, which smells pretty nasty can make people unconscious and in extreme cases, cause death. One of the dangers of living near volcano is to face death from toxic gases.
Apart from gases, in eruptions which produce ash, people face the danger of hydrogen halide raining down from the skies as acid rain, which had happened in Kilauea recently. The acid rain poisons water supplies, grazing land and agricultural crops, thus causing a lot of havoc, and is one of the worst dangers of living near volcano.
One of the dangers of living near volcano is the possibility of being in the path of hot, flowing rivers of lava. Lava can destroy anything in its path instantaneously, as can be seen in the Vesuvius eruption centuries earlier.
Ash, acid rain, lava, poisonous gases are dangers which are life threatening. Add to that the mudslides formed by water and debris, as the heat from volcano melts the surrounding ice. A volcanic eruption 5600 years earlier gave rise to a mudflow which cooled and covered the land of Tahoma city, Seattle and a few more towns.
Why do people live near volcanoes?
For people who live near volcanoes, the fear of a volcano erupting is present always, but this fear is equivalent to the same fear felt by people who live in earthquake, flood prone zones etc. In fact, due to better disaster management in many parts of the world, people who live near volcanoes are usually evacuated in time. They can escape with their lives and few valuables, though their property might be destroyed. Statistically, volcanoes have caused the least damage to lives.
Tourism industry profits
Often near volcanoes, there is a popular and profitable tourism industry, due to which the local people benefit. People all over the world come to gaze upon one of Mother Nature’s grand displays. The locals are informed about the volcanoes’ dormant and active state, and know how to reduce risk.
Thousands of local guides, gift shop owners, restaurants and hotels in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park earn their livelihood from the tourists. As volcanoes start showing signs of erupting beforehand, it is easier for disaster management teams to help locals and tourists reach safety, so there is not much dangers of living near volcano, and earning a living there.
The soil surrounding the volcanoes is rich in minerals and many crops can be grown successfully, which yield a high produce. Big Island has a flourishing agricultural industry of food, plants and flowers.
People who live next to volcanoes are attracted by the tourism industry. Locals are aware of the dangers and many who can afford to move, do so. Otherwise, living near volcanoes is just a part of life, the same as people living in other parts of the world.