How Much Worse Can the Taal Volcano Eruption in the Philippines Get? An Expert Explains.

Records show that Taal Volcano erupted for seven months in the past, so experts advise to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

by Lia Savillo
14 January 2020, 6:23am

Residents living along Taal lake catch fish as Taal volcano erupts in Tanauan town, Batangas province south of Manila on January 14, 2020. Taal volcano in the Philippines could spew lava and ash for weeks, authorities warned, leaving thousands in limbo after fleeing their homes fearing a massive eruption.

“Ghost town” and “no man’s land” are just some of the ways Filipinos have described the areas surrounding the Taal Volcano, which erupted on Sunday, January 12, and continues to spew ash today.

Ash fall reached Metro Manila, cancelling flights in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and suspending classes in various schools as grey particles covered roads. However, the scene is much worse in the provinces Batangas — where the volcano is located — Laguna, and Cavite.

VICE was on the ground on Monday, January 13, and found pineapple fields in Silang, Cavite blackened.

Larry Garcia, 50, told VICE that the factory where he works in Cabuyao, Laguna, was covered in more than an inch of ash. Meanwhile, workers tasked by the government to clean up the roads in Tagaytay City were still at it at around 6 p.m. on Monday and showed no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Photo by Therese Reyes.

The air in Tagaytay City, a resort town known for its views of Taal Volcano, was also much harder to breathe even with a face mask on. Residents in nearby towns have since been evacuated.

Taal Volcano continues to erupt today and according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology's Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division (PHIVOLCS-VMEPD), it is unclear when it will stop. To find out what lies ahead for the Philippines, VICE talked to Lincoln Olayta, a science research specialist at the government agency, and learned about the worst-case scenario.

VICE: We’re on Alert Level 4 in the Philippines, which means an explosion is imminent. What exactly does this mean for us?

Olayta: Our current observation shows no signs of escalation nor [of] dying down. It’s currently still releasing steam plume possibly containing ash, and we’re currently observing specific parameters for volcano monitoring.

What is the situation on the ground?

There was some spewing of lava between 2:49 a.m. to 4:28 a.m. [on Monday]. Based on reports, we had ash fall deposits in Batangas and in the Taal Observatory, and some of our equipment is now broken. We’re now restoring the operations. Currently, on our side in Manila, ash fall has stopped, but since the volcano is still steaming, that doesn’t mean it’s over. We all need to stay alert for volcanic earthquakes.

How much worse could this reasonably get? What is the worst-case scenario?

I’ll base it off historical references: Taal has had a lot of eruptions, but the most notable ones were in 1754 and 1911.

In 1754, it erupted for seven months. It was episodic or sporadic despite the length, and continued until a climactic one. Based on the rock deposits on the site, base surges happened during the eruption, which means that pyroclastic density currents (a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter) flowed from the volcano to the lake and towards the shores of the residents.

The 1911 eruption lasted for three days. It was unprecedented and happened quickly so no one was prepared. It was a violent phreatic eruption (steam-driven explosion) that spewed off ballistic projectiles, which are volcanic materials ejected during an eruption, along with ash fall and base surges. Because of this, there were 1,300 casualties, which were from lakeshore biospheres and those on the volcano island itself.

Is the situation different now that people are aware of the volcanic activity?

Yes. Now that we have social media to disseminate information, we’ve been able to evacuate people faster. It’s a good thing but we [still] need to be vigilant. The worst-case [scenario] is that an eruption would go beyond the 14-kilometre radius from the volcano’s main crater, which is currently the high-risk zone that we’ve set. But as of now, we can’t really say.

How will this affect surrounding provinces and how expansive do you think it could possibly be?

We’re not sure how strong it will be right now, and we can’t say how expansive it will be. But if it escalates to Alert Level 5, it could be hazardous even for those outside the high-risk zone, and more provinces may be affected.

How will this worst-case scenario affect Metro Manila?

It will [usually] only be affected by ash fall, based on the distance of Metro Manila to Taal’s main crater. But if the situation worsens, then [there could] possibly be small ballistic projectiles, which are volcanic materials ejected during an explosive eruption.

Do you hold out much hope that things are going to get better in the next few weeks?

Well, we’re all hoping it will, but as scientists we can’t really say, since Taal [once] recorded an eruption that lasted for seven months. So let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

What needs to happen in the meantime? Is there any way people can help?

The most we can do is to make sure the right information is disseminated properly, and right now we’re receiving some misinformation reports. Everyone should follow the updates from official sources and prepare for the worst. If people are willing to help, they can send reports of ash fall to Phivolcs, or anything interesting, to help us determine the current state of the volcano.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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