< Norfolk Volcano

Volcanoes: How close is too close?

< Norfolk Volcano

Volcanoes: How close is too close?

Volcanoes are incredible to see and visit, but unfortunately they also kill people. Eruptions have taken thousands of lives, such as the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, or the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz. However, small numbers of people also die each year – not always volcanologists – because they were too close at the wrong time. Often it’s the case that many of these incidents could have been avoided.

Inside an active volcano - Merapi (7756647556)
An amazing photo from inside our volcano, Merapi. But is it worth it to get this close?

We have a few examples where people had a lucky escape and lived to tell the tale, but they could have all ended tragically. So why do we make bad choices? Sometimes volcanoes can just be an irresistible pull – in fact, one of the NFV team once sprained an ankle falling off a ledge because she was focussing too much on a glowing rock in the distance, rather than where she was walking! The captivating nature of volcanoes can sometimes cause us to lose our awareness as well as our common sense! So apart from turning into a zombie, what are the other pitfalls (‘scuse the pun) that might affect volcanophiles?

When we are iIl-informed about what a volcano can do, this can lead to naivety about the dangers. On the other hand, familiarity can breed complacency; a dangerous attitude when walking on a ticking bomb! Other times, it is easy to just follow guides (or other scientists) and not think about the dangers for ourselves; or we can be so focussed on an objective, that we don’t see other ways of achieving it. The USGS says that common-sense often isn’t enough – we need to be aware of what the volcano can do.

But how close is close enough? This depends on a few things: the size of the volcano, how frequently it erupts, the style of eruption and its predictability. All of us, regardless of how much we know, can still be caught off guard. So how do we make our choice?

We have picked out four videos that illustrate these problems – and we are going to explain what we think about them – you make your own mind up…

There’s no denying it – these guys are insane. While we have to admit that we enjoyed watching the volcano-action, if the explosion had been a tiny bit bigger… well let’s just say they were very lucky be able to come back and upload the video!

This one is a little closer to home. As volcanologists, we often need to collect fresh samples to help understand eruptions and determine the source of the magma, but does this scientist push it a little too far? We think so. The problem is – any number of things could have gone wrong. Lava lakes are very rare, but they can be unpredictable and violent! Normally when lava is flowing along the ground, it is probably the safest of the volcanic hazards (despite it being ~1200 degrees centigrade!) You can usually out-walk it and with the right gear on, you can get right up close to the flows. The ‘silver suits’ are cumbersome though, and rapid getaways from over-spilling lava lakes are not easy!

It’s a shame we’re polluting our blog with this insanity.  Mental May could’ve easily ended up the second of the Top Gear threesome to wind up in hospital…or worse…just for trying to appear cool for their millions of viewers as he “scoops up a fresh piece of landscape as a souvenir….”. We wonder if anyone at the BBC realises just how close this was…?

The final example shows what can happen when even scientists get it wrong. Maurice and Katia Krafft were experienced volcanologists pursuing their life’s work of documenting eruptions. They often got too close to the action, and were known for their fearless approach to observing and measuring their erupting subjects. In the end, the volcano got the better of them.

So what can we do? We don’t want to advise you on safety precautions and recommendations (that isn’t our place to say)…but rather encourage you to think carefully for yourself and take responsibility for yourself. Most volcanoes are just like normal mountains – you normally won’t find a fenced off bit telling you where is or isn’t safe!  We think that often the best question to ask is ‘what can the volcano do to surprise me today’? If you don’t know, find out! You can never have too much information – every time that NFV volcanologists do fieldwork, we always work with local scientists and often employ local guides and never ignore official warnings!

But perhaps the most important thing is to always think about each situation for yourself. Don’t just do something because someone else says it’s safe. If you feel scared or unsure – why are you there?

It’s not cool to be reckless.

But we hear you asking, “So, what about the Norfolk Firework Volcano though?”

Luckily for you – the firework volcano is one volcano that you can visit without having to think for yourself – we have thought about that already for you and won’t let you get closer than 20m…which will be quite close enough!

Comment below or tweet using #tooclose and share images or videos where you think people have gotten a little too close.

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