Volcanic eruption shuts down transportation in the Philippines

Photo of the Taal Volcano erupting in the Philippines.

A huge plume of ash from a volcano in the Philippines has closed the international airport in Manila, potentially delaying air cargo exports.

Strong winds carried the ash across Luzon, the country’s largest island, after the weekend eruption of the Taal volcano, about 45 miles south of the Philippine capital. 

There have been no reports of deaths or major damage related to the eruption, but it triggered the evacuation of 20,000 to 30,000 people so far from the immediate area of the volcano, according to Mark Timbal, a spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in Quezon City.
In some places, falling ash from the plume has been so severe that drivers trying to get people to safety have had to stop because of near-zero visibility. The volcanic activity has resulted in several hundred flights being canceled at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA code: MNL), as well as the closure of the stock market and many schools. A few petroleum facilities are at risk of damage, as shown in the FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events map below. Airport officials have resumed operations with some restrictions.

SONAR Critical Events: Monday, Jan. 13, 1 p.m. EST. Risk zone around the Taal volcano in the Philippines

The Philippines is one of several countries that has benefited from the shift of manufacturing from China, although it’s production base is relatively small compared to places such as Vietnam.

Taal, situated on an island in the middle of a lake, is one of the world’s smallest volcanoes and has recorded at least 34 eruptions in the past 450 years. It’s the second-most active volcano in the Philippines. Authorities in the surrounding province, Batangas, have declared a “state of calamity,” signifying major disruption.

Taal “entered a period of intense unrest” after remaining at rest for the past several months, according to officials with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs). On Sunday, Phivolcs issued an alert level 4, which means an explosive eruption, much larger than what occurred over the weekend, is likely in the coming days. Level 4 is the second-highest level of risk. If a severe eruption occurs, this could result in additional issues in Manila and the surrounding areas in terms of transportation — air, ports, roads and rails — as well as more disruptions and shutdowns of business operations and supply chains.

Health risks from a phenomenon known as “base surge” are also a concern since more than 25 million people live within 60 miles of the Taal Volcano. Base surge is when massive clouds of ash, rocks and gas are thrust out horizontally at speeds of more than 35 miles an hour. The clouds move with such force that they could travel over the lake that surrounds Taal Volcano and sweep across the mainland, potentially harming life and property.

These clouds “can burn you, asphyxiate you, crush you, mangle you,” said Dr. Renato Solidum Jr., officer-in-charge of Phivolcs. “This is the worst-case scenario.”

Base surges have occurred at Taal before, giving the relatively small volcano a violent history. An eruption in 1965, accompanied by outward-pushing clouds, killed 200 people. A similar disaster in 1911 killed an estimated 1,300 people, according to Dr. Solidum. In 1754, the clouds extended to areas all around the volcano, but accurate records of the number of casualties aren’t available.

SONAR Vehicle Traffic: Monday, Jan. 13, 1 p.m. EST. Airplane and container ship locations in and around the Philippines.

A major eruption could also cause a volcanic tsunami, authorities warned. This could result from debris shooting out of the volcano and hitting the waters of the surrounding lake, generating big waves. Dr. Solidum said there was no reliable way to estimate how likely it was that a base surge or volcanic tsunami would occur.

Since Sunday afternoon, seismologists have recorded at least 144 volcanic earthquakes in the Taal region. That is an indication that the magma is moving up the volcano with enough force to cause fissures or cracks in the ground to shake. A major eruption could have ramifications for months or years down the road regarding transportation and lives in the Philippines and the Manila metropolitan area.