The Potential Dangers of Exploring Volcanic Landscapes

Volcano tourism is popular with visitors intrigued by the bleak landscapes and possible risk. Ian Neubauer talks to the experts about how to stay safe when traveling to active volcanic destinations.


A volcano erupts in the background as mountain bikers in a grass paddock begin to leave the scene Photo © Ian Neubauer

Volcanoes often form where tectonic plates connect. The friction between these plates melts the earth’s crust, which causes the rock beneath the crust to turn into magma.

Volcanoes are insanely powerful magnets. Their slopes cause air to rise where it's colder, creating condensation and drawing in clouds. Ash particles ejected by volcanic eruptions are good at collecting water droplets, attracting rain. Volcanic ash and rock are rich with minerals, attracting farmers to well-fertilized soil.

Volcanoes also attract all kinds of wildlife. I once scuba-dived over an underwater volcano in Indonesia which was riddled with cracks from which gases escaped in bubbles and rose to the surface. Those bubbles attracted thousands of Zebra Striped sea snakes that swam curiously around my arms and legs.

Volcanoes also attract tourists. “Most people don't live near volcanoes, don't see them every day, and because the landscapes they create can look quite alien, people are fascinated by them,” says Mike Rose, of Paradise Motorcycle Tours in New Zealand, a country with 12 active volcanoes. “I also think many people are not really risk-averse and the risk of an eruption is part of the attraction. Or they just don't think it's going to happen them.”

Nevertheless, around 60 of the world's 1,500-odd active volcanoes erupt every year. Some are repeat offenders but others catch us by surprise. Of course, the only way to completely remove any risk of volcanic dangers is to not visit at all. But, here are a few safety tips on how to prepare for a visit to a volcano and what to do in case of an eruption.

Different types of volcanoes

Tracy Gregg, a geologist at the University of Buffalo in New York, says volcanoes can be broken down into three categories based on the level of risk for tourism.

“The first category includes volcanoes such as White Island in New Zealand that are essentially active, but there are geologically short periods of respite between eruptions,” she says.

“The second category includes volcanoes, such as the Yellowstone Caldera in the US and Campi Flegrei in Italy, that are huge and technically active, but the length of the respite varies from decades to hundreds of thousands of years.

“The third are polite volcanoes such as Mount Etna in Sicily and Kilauea in Hawaii. When they erupt, the most common form of eruption is lava flow. They tend not to take people by surprise, but they can damage property.”

Dr. Christina Magill, an Australian environmental scientist who works at Jolt Analytics, studies the impacts of eruptions, and agrees volcanoes in the third category “are typically non-explosive and you can certainly outrun their lava. She adds: “Whereas eruptions by volcanoes in the other two categories, those that emit 'pyroclastic' flows – fast-moving currents of gas and volcanic material – travel much faster.”

What to know about volcanic warning systems

“In the majority of countries with volcano tourism,” says Dr. Magill, “the volcanoes are very well monitored, particularly in New ZealandIndonesia and Japan. Lots of different outputs are measured: seismicity or earthquake analysis, deformation of volcanic edifices, thermal-anomaly mapping, measuring gases and ash from eruptions.”

Gregg says the number one piece of advice is to check the latest posts on websites and social media channels of official volcano monitoring agencies. “As a volcanologist who likes to take my family on vacations to volcanoes, the first thing I do is visit the website of the government agency that lists the current state of volcanic activity in that country,” she says.

Will Meyrick of Infinity Mountain Biking, an Indonesian company that offers guided cycling tours down Central Java’s Mount Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes, shares the same advice. “If a volcano is active, you should always check the volcanic alert level, which can range from one to five,” he says. “If it's at levels four or five, your guide needs to make a judgment call, which is why you should always use a reputable tour company that will make responsible decisions and check for regular updates.”

Take a look at GeoNet’s volcanic alert level chart here.

Crowds of tourists looking into a volcanic crater from a rocky mountain shrouded by clouds
Crowds gather at Ijen volcano in Indonesia, looking down at the blue fire crater below. Photo credit: Ian Neubauer

What to do before a volcanic eruption

“If you're visiting a volcano that emits lots of gases or fine ash, you should take a gas mask that filters out small particles in the air,” Dr. Magill advises. Only masks and respirators classified as N95 offer adequate protection.

One of the precautions Gregg takes, is parking her car with the nose out. “When we went to Mount Saint Helens in Oregon, USA, I parked my vehicle with its nose out so we could get out as fast as possible in the event of an eruption,” she says. “I also took my family to Kilauea in 2018 after it erupted and destroyed hundreds of homes, but no one was killed so I deemed it an acceptable risk. But, some of the volcanoes that are popular with tourists, you couldn't pay me enough to go there. If I had to go there to lay measuring instruments, I would do it in a helicopter to get in and out as fast as possible.

What to do during a volcanic eruption

“We have safety manuals for everything you can think of,” explains Rose. “After all, there are few things you can do that are more dangerous than giving someone a high-powered motorbike. But when it comes to emergency procedures for eruptions, all you can really tell someone is to run.”

Dr. Magill concurs. “With pyroclastic flows, you would just hope you are not anywhere near it because there isn't a lot you can do,” she says. “If you are tens of miles away from the source of the eruption, you are still looking at minimal impacts like ash particles in the air.”

Gregg says one thing you can do is stay out of valleys. “Lava, big hot ash flows and debris flow downhill into valleys. So, if you are in one, run uphill as fast as you can.”

The verdict

“There are very few volcanoes in the world where we have the capacity of predicting an eruption,” says Gregg. “Kilauea is a rare exception because it's covered with measuring instruments. But there's no such thing as a risk-free volcano.”

Dr. Janine Krippner, a volcanologist from New Zealand who studies pyroclastic flows at Concord University in West Virginia, USA, says: “Even if you follow every bit of advice here, you could still get hurt on a volcano. The only way to eliminate the risk of being injured or killed on a volcano is to not be there.”

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