Remembering the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo

Before a cataclysmic 1991 eruption, it was an unassuming mountain peak in the Philippines.

Twenty-six years ago on this day, a dome of lava appeared at the summit of Mount Pinatubo in Zambales spewing and creating a cauliflower shaped like cloud of hot gas and rock into the air.

That signalled the beginning of the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Although evacuations were held as early as April of 1991, some still didn’t see it coming.

 

No one was really prepared for what was about to happen. At first, many didn’t think much of the volcano’s emissions. These were seemingly minor, inconsequential, thus a number of people who resided within the area of the volcano just went about their lives normally.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the world’s largest volcanic eruption to happen in the past 100 years was the June 15, 1991, eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

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Early June 10, in the face of a growing dome, increasing ash emission and worrisome seismicity, 15,000 nonessential personnel and dependents were evacuated by road from the former Clark Air Base to Subic Naval Base. By then, almost all aircraft had been removed from Clark and local residents were also warned to evacuate.

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On June 12 (Philippine Independence Day), the volcano’s first spectacular eruption sent an ash column 12 miles (19 km) into the air. Additional explosions occurred overnight and the morning of June 13. Seismic activity during this period became intense. The visual display of ash clouds convinced everyone that evacuations were the right thing to do.

The big bang

When even more highly gas-charged magma reached Pinatubo’s surface on June 15, the volcano exploded. Volcanic ash and pumice blanketed the countryside.

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Huge avalanches of searing hot ash, gas and pumice fragments, called pyroclastic flows, roared down the flanks of Pinatubo, filling once-deep valleys with fresh volcanic deposits.

As if the eruption itself was not damaging enough, Typhoon Diding (Yunya) passed through Luzon on the same day, causing roofs of houses to collapse as the rainwater mixed with the ashes ejected by Mount Pinatubo.

 

 

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The typhoon also mobilized fresh volcano deposits, burying nearby communities with large rocks and thick, hot lahars causing major infrastructural damages in the adjoining provinces of Zambales, Pampanga and Tarlac that straddle Pinatubo. Airborne volcanic ash paralyzed aviation in East Asia for days.

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In Pinatubo’s wake, nearly 250,000 families were seriously affected and the indigenous Aeta people who called Pinatubo their god and its flanks their home completely displaced. As per records of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), the eruption directly incurred 847 deaths, 184 injuries and 23 missing persons.

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The Aftermath: Shades of Gray

The post-eruption landscape at Pinatubo was disorienting; familiar but at the same time, totally different. Acacia trees lay in gray heaps, trees and shrubs were covered in ash. Roofs collapsed from the tremendous stresses of wet ash and continuing earthquakes. No matter which way one turned, everything looked the same shade of gray.

 

But eruption was soon succeeded by an equally destructive crisis – a decade of fearsome lahars with every typhoon and episode of intense rainfall. The largest of these lahars, the 1993 Typhoon Kadiang, the 1994 Cutuno Lake breakout and the 1995 Typhoon Mameng, collectively dumped more than 200 million cubic meters of debris on riverine towns and cities of Pampanga and Zambales, while killing thousands in their course.

Overcoming adversity

Twenty six years later, Mt. Pinatubo has remained still, quiet. The last time it put a scare was in July 1992, wherein there was a minor eruption.

But since then, nothing.

While Pinatubo’s unrest brought untold hardship and destruction for many years, it has also underscored the immense fortitude of the Filipino people in overcoming adversity.

People have moved back to its proximity and are now leading normal lives once again. New homes, roads, and bridges have been built. While traces of lahar remain visible in some kindareas, everything seems back to normal.

Gradually, those who were affected by the tragedy were able to put things back the way they were. Well not exactly the way they were, but the best it could be, at least.

SOURCES: USGS, Getty Images

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