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Reporter: Jamie Durie
Producer: Dale Paget
All the volcanoes are awake.
JAMIE DURIE: But you can’t explain it.
We can’t explain it.
Something big could happen anytime.
JAMIE DURIE: Well this is one of the world’s great volcanoes and I have to say I am just awestruck by the earth’s incredible power. A thousand feet down rumbling molten lava you can feel the movement under your feet you can feel it coming through your chest you can smell the sulphur in the air and whilst there are many mysteries surrounding volcanoes what we do know is that they are completely unpredictable.
And I can’t tell you what it feels like to be standing here.
Vanuatu is paradise in the south pacific.
It’s also a place where jungles steam, the earth moves and mountains roar.
These are among the closest active volcanoes to Australia’s east coast cities. In recent months, they’ve have awakened.
John Seach: I think it’s a mystery as to why we have this activity. Is this activity gong to die down or escalate to something large?
JAMIE DURIE: So I imagine you’d be able to get a lot of information from these sedimentary layers.
John Seach: The deposits can tell you the frequency and the size of the eruptions.
JAMIE DURIE: Few people know more about volcanoes than Australian scientist John Seach. He’s been studying them for 21 years. Reporting his findings to America’s
Smithsonian Insitute and volcanologists worldwide. John’s taking me to one of the most active volcanoes of all.
John Seach: In the last few weeks the level of activity has increased markedly.
JAMIE DURIE: This is Yasur volcano on the Vanuata island of Tanna.
John Seach: So the volcano we’re on has been raised to the next alert level. For its size, Vanuatu is the most volcanically active region on earth and it’s probably one of the closest volcanic regions to Australia. It’s right on our doorstep and we almost do nothing to study this. So, well that’s a nice one. That’s a big one look at that! The activity can escalate without warning so while we think we’re relatively safe here, within minutes we could be way inside the danger zone.
JAMIE DURIE: Lava is blasted into the sky more than 500 times a day.
John Seach: Two people have died just a few metres from here. They were cut in half by a rock this seize that was ejected at 200 metres a second, cutting them both in half at the same time.
JAMIE DURIE: John will report on the activity to Vanuatu’s volcano monitoring centre. He also wants to show us what’s been brewing below the surface.
John Seach: Watch it, watch it. It could be a chance, oh let’s go. We need to be really careful this is the real thing. Remember if there’s an eruption stand your ground and just wait for my call.
Look at this, look at that. This is the closest you’ll ever see to the bowels of the earth. You know there are not many people in the world who have stood this close to molten lava.
JAMIE DURIE: What can it teach us abbot what’s going on?
John Seach: Well we need to take samples of these volcanic bombs to try and work out if there’s been….
JAMIE DURIE: That went straight through me.
John Seach: The reason we come into these areas is to collect a sample of this lava is
to work out why there has been an increase in activity in the past six months. So this can tell us if it’s new lava or old lava being injected. Really this is the newest real-estate on earth.
JAMIE DURIE: Position, position, position hey?
John Seach: Have you got enough because we need to get out of here?
Stand your ground, stand your ground. Look up. Ok we’re right but we need to as soon as possible, be moving back.
Come on guys don’t dawdle.
The seismic volcanic activity has increased markedly in the last year or so in this region starting with an undersea eruption in Tonga, followed by the huge Samoan earthquake and one week later there were three magnitude seven earthquakes in Vanuatu and one day later, Gaua volcano started erupting. People just don’t take volcanoes seriously enough. Hisorically the largest tsunamis have come from volcanic eruptions, not earthquakes.
Esline Garaebiti: Australia is close to Vanuatu so Australia is prone to any tsunamis that can be triggered in Vanuatu.
JAMIE DURIE: Esline Garaebiti runs Vanuatu’s geo hazards centre which monitors earthquakes and eruptions.
Esline Garaebiti: It’s different now. We have more and more activities and all the volcanoes in Vanuatu are excited right now so this is also something that we are trying to understand what’s happening.
JAMIE DURIE: One seriously nasty volcano that could send a tsunami to Australia is Mount Garet on the remote island of Gaua.
What would be the lead time if something were to erupt at a scale big enough to push a tsunami?
John Seach: We’d only have two hours before the tsunami hit Australia.
JAMIE DURIE: I mean you know, this has never happened in my lifetime or yours.
John Seach: No but on a geological time frame, these things are quite common.
JAMIE DURIE: Are you an alarmist?
John Seach: I think I’m a realist. I think our understanding of tsunamis is inadequate and our monitoring is lacking. That’s all noise, no action.
JAMIE DURIE: Ten kilometers from Mt Garet volcano, the local women use their hands and bodies to create a unique sound. It’s called water music.
A few months ago another sound changed their lives.
Mt Garet began erupting for the first time in two decades and villagers were evacuated to the far side of the island. With the blessing of the island chief we head off to the volcano.
Villager: It made a loud noise like thunder.
JAMIE DURIE: With the blessing of the island chief we head off to the volcano. With a four hour hike, we find the only piece of equipment that’s tracking eruptions and earthquakes on the island.
John Seach: This is meant to determine where the earthquakes are coming from and whether lava is coming to the surface.
JAMIE DURIE: In a garbage bin.
John Seach: Yeah and we need three working ones to get useful information and there’s only one on the island.
JAMIE DURIE: Our limit is the water’s edge… to go any closer would be foolish.
John Seach: It’s a ticking time bomb. And do you notice the gases coming from the side of the hill ?
JAMIE DURIE: Yeah yeah why is that?
John Seach: That’s just a line of weakness and that’s a problem if that keeps coming down towards the lake then there are serious issues. It’s like having a pot of oil on the stove at home and you when you tip water into it, it explodes.
JAMIE DURIE: John’s research will be provided to Vanuatu’s vulcanologists to help them keep track of the ever-changing activity.
John Seach: This crater on the left hand side is really pumping the gases out and it’s looking quite ominous actually. 500 years ago there was a huge undersea explosion and it affected the world’s climate for one to two years. So volcanoes are, I guess in a sense they’re like people and they have personalities.
JAMIE DURIE: What’s your favourite volcano?
John Seach: My favourite volcano is Ambrym, the greatest volcano of all. It’s majestic, powerful and awe-inspiring.
JAMIE DURIE: And the Ambrym volcano is also incredibly dangerous to reach. We fly to the crater’s rim by helicopter and then walk across lava flows through clouds of volcanic ash, reaching the edge of a giant opening in the earths crust.
The gas is unbelievable, you can feel it in your eyes.
The lava lakes below us generate more poisonous sulphur dioxide gas than any other volcano on earth.
John Seach: There’s a thousand foot cliff there and bubbling lava at the bottom well its amazing.
JAMIE DURIE: It’s a shame the weather’s not fantastic.
John Seach: Well this is as good as it gets on Ambrym because the volcano is so huge that it creates its own weather.
It’s crazy but this is living coming to these places and seeing nature at its best.
There are three things that people want to know about volcanoes. The first thing is when will it erupt? Secondly is how big the eruption will be and thirdly when will it stop? And we can’t answer any of those questions.
JAMIE DURIE: We have one final scientific mission to complete - a night time expedition to Yasur volcano.
John Seach: Any sample will be useful but if you can get a nice big blob the size of a cricket ball or something like that that will be good for us.
JAMIE DURIE: Okay beautiful lets do it should we? She looks like she’s ready mate lets go.
John Seach: This will allow us to get close to the lava so that we can collect the sample.
Oh dear, just stay there, stay there. We’ve got a good sample up here.
JAMIE DURIE: Wow look at them all.
John Seach: Just put your visor down before we start the collection.
JAMIE DURIE: You can feel the heat on it its amazing.
John Seach: Oh look at that just try to flick something in. The critical bit of information we can get from this will tell us whether its lava that’s been ripped from the sides of the conduit or whether its something fresh that’s coming into the system.
John Seach: Ok we need to get out of here.
JAMIE DURIE: Ok, let’s go. One moment we are standing there and were looking up at the stars the next moment the sky turns red and there’s red stars coming at you from all directions you. You are told to stand still but instincts say you've got to run and really you know this could be your last moment and its an incredibly vulnerable feeling.
Why is Vanuatu so important to volcanologists?
John Seach: Vanuatu is a volcanologist’s dream. The volcanoes are the most active in the world and I think Australia should be realistic about what’s happening. Tsunami’s can be bigger than the Chilean tsunami or even the Sumatra tsunami from 2006. On a historical basis they’re small. And the largest tsunamis have come from volcanic eruptions so what we’ve seen in our lifetime is nothing compared to what’s possible.