Red-hot lava gushed out of the Taal volcano in the Philippines on Monday, with seismologists warning an eruption could happen any time.
A day after a plume of ash and steam forced villagers to flee and shut down Manila’s international airport, offices and schools, scientists said they were caught out by the volcano’s sudden activity.
“The speed of escalation of Taal’s volcanic activity caught us by surprise,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told reporters.
“We have detected magma. It’s still deep, it hasn’t reached the surface. We still can expect a hazardous eruption any time.”
There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage from the eruption south of the capital, which began on Sunday. But clouds of ash blew more than 100km (62 miles) north to Manila, forcing the shutdown of the country’s main airport, with more than 240 international and domestic flights cancelled. The airport partially reopened later on Monday.
The government’s disaster-response agency reported about 8,000 villagers had moved to at least 38 evacuation centres in the hard-hit province of Batangas and nearby Cavite province, but officials expect the number to swell with hundreds of thousands more being brought out of harm’s way.
Some residents could not move out of ash-blanketed villages due to a lack of transport and poor visibility, while officials said others refused to leave their homes.
“We have a problem, our people are panicking due to the volcano because they want to save their livelihood, their pigs and herds of cows,” the mayor of Balete, Wilson Maralit, told DZMM radio. “We’re trying to stop them from returning and warning that the volcano can explode again any time and hit them.”
Maralit, whose town lies on Taal Lake surrounding the erupting volcano, appealed for troops and additional police to be deployed to stop distraught residents from sneaking back to their high-risk coastal villages.
After months of restiveness that began last year, Taal suddenly rumbled back to life on Sunday, blasting steam, ash and pebbles 10-15km (6-9 miles) into the sky, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.
The government volcano-monitoring agency raised the danger level around Taal three notches to level 4, indicating “an imminent hazardous eruption.”
Level 5, the highest, means a hazardous eruption is under way and could affect a larger area with high-risk zones that would need to be cleared of people, said the head of the institute, Renato Solidum, who heads the institute
Bornas said lava spurted out in fountains out of the volcano early Monday, while its ash and steam ejections eased. She said it was hard to tell when the eruption would stop, citing Taal’s similar restiveness in the 1970s, which lasted for about four months.
With the steam and ash easing Monday, some residents began to shovel away the thick coating of ash coating the town of Tagaytay, a popular upland resort city on a ridge that overlooks the volcano.
Usually bustling with traffic and tourists, many of Tagaytay’s restaurants and coffee shops were closed, its main road covered in filth and mud.
The volcanology institute reminded the public that the small island where the volcano lies is a “permanent danger zone”, although fishing villages have existed there for years.
It stressed that the “total evacuation” of people on the island and coastal areas, with a high risk of pyroclastic flows and volcanic tsunami in a 14km radius from Taal.
Aviation officials must advise airplanes to avoid flying at a certain distance from the volcano “as airborne ash and ballistic fragments from the eruption column pose hazards to aircraft,” it said.