The state of emergency on the Vanuatuan island of Ambae, which has been evacuated in light of extensive volcanic activity, has been extended for two weeks. But there is some hope for the more than 11,000 residents evacuated to nearby island as the risk level has been reduced from level 4 to level 3 on a one to five scale.
The Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department says that the eruption of the Manaro volcano on Ambae “is continuing but remains stable and confined to Lake Voui.”
“Further scientific analyses confirm that there is currently no evidence of escalation of the activity,” the VMGD said. “The volcanic eruption is likely to continue in a steady state. Danger is restricted to the danger zone that extends 3 km from the active vent in Lake Voui.”
They say that photographs and thermal infrared images taken during observation flights “show the activity consists of small explosions and ejection of hot rocks from vents on the new small island in the lake. There is also a small lava flow from the island into the lake.”
Summarising the eruption, which began in September, the VMGD said that “the volcanic activity has built a volcanic cone (island) in Lake Voui. The cone building phase produced the largest explosions and ashfalls. Some parts of the island experienced ashfalls from this phase of the eruption. The eruptions in mid-September 2017 are similar to those in 2005.
“The style of the eruption changed around 22 September when Geohazards staff observed lava (molten rock) at the surface for the first time. This was a significant change and raised the level of uncertainty about the development of the eruption.”
A New Zealand volcano scientist, Brad Scott, has flown over the volcano. He told New Zealand’s Newshub website that he saw a range of volcanic activity, including incandescent lava flows, which he hasn't seen there before. “Explosions were occurring every three or five seconds. The northernmost vent in particular was the most active, and there were lava bombs being generated up to maybe 50-80 metres height, every five seconds or so.”
The Vanuatuan Prime Minister Charlot Salwai and climate change minister Ham Lini were prevented from visiting 500 evacuees on the island of Maewo because their plane was unable land in the heavy rain and bad weather. They continued on to the island of Santo, where they met some of the 7,000 evacuees being temporarily housed on the island.
The Australian Navy amphibious vessel HMAS Choules this week arrived at the Vanuatu town of Luganville to deliver food, water, shelter kits, and hygiene kits to some of the families evacuated to the islands of Pentecost and Maewo.
The Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACOM) has been supporting residents of Ambae during the evacuation period, and has received support from the Anglican Churches of Australia, and of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.
Grace, a worker from Anglican Overseas Aid (AOA), the relief and development agency of the Anglican Church of Australia, has recently returned from Vanuatu and says that the volcano on Ambae can been seen and heard from the nearby island of Pentecost.
“Locals on Ambae are used to the volcano smoking, so initially they and people living on neighbouring islands weren’t concerned about it,” the AOA said. “But when Grace and our colleague from ACOM arrived on Pentecost on Sunday they learned that people there had woken between 3-4am to the sound of volcanic explosions. That is when they thought things were out of character.
“A local chief, Phillip, who is 80 years old, said he had never heard the volcano like this and had never seen the red lava spew out of it as it has been in recent days. Phillip is having trouble sleeping now as he is worried for the children.
“People are scared. They are worried about ash ruining crops and polluting water, and the uncertainty of whether volcanic eruptions will progress further. As well as that, two other volcanos in Vanuatu have had increased activity this week.”
AOA says that the short-term needs are for food and water. Longer term, there is a “grave fear” that water sources and crops on Ambae will be made unusable through ash pollution.