Philippine HiStory Today: Mt Pinatubo Eruption
Greetings! Today the weather is becoming ever heavier with rain and the sun is disappearing behind dark clouds. We’re gearing up for another rainy season here in the Philippines. On the other hand, I heard from friends that Europe is enjoying good weather these days.
I know the weather is not the best topic of conversations. But I want to know something related to the weather: where were you when the sky turned black and it rained ashes and rocks in the Philippines the year 1991? Do you remember the ‘end days’ of that fateful year?
In case you’ve forgotten (or if you were fortunately too young to remember or not born yet), that was the year many Filipinos believed it was the end of humankind: the year of the Mount Pinatubo eruption.
The eruption of Mt Pinatubo has been dubbed the second largest volcanic eruption of 20th century. Mother Nature was very angry that day, and it wreaked havoc in the Philippines, with effects lingering and haunting the provinces close to the mountain up to now.
Grab onto your chairs because our date in focus today, 15 June 1991, has a very staggering story.
Looking for signs
Way before the eruption of 15 June 1991, only a handful knew about the existence of Mt Pinatubo. How is it possible that not a lot of people knew the existence of a very active and historically cataclysmic volcano near Luzon’s major centres?
First, a crash course on geography:
Map of Mount Pinatubo in Central Luzon
If I tell you to stand on the slopes of Zambales or in the middle of the flat plains of Pampanga, do you think you can point out to me Mt Pinatubo in the horizon as easily as any Bicolano can point out Mt Mayon or any Davaoeño can point out Mt Apo? I highly doubt it, and it’s not because of any lapse in your knowledge of geography.
None of us can point out Mt Pinatubo in Central Luzon because it lies in the heart of a mountainous region called Cabusilan Mountains, in the middle of the Zambales mountain range. Another reason why it was relatively unknown by majority of the locals before 1991 is because the last cataclysm it caused (which was five times than the 1991 eruption) was believed to have occurred 35,000 years ago, way before human history could record it.
Relative dormancy and invisibility led people to believe living in the surrounding areas was safe. Pinatubo is actually just 54 miles north of Manila, 23 miles of the American base in Subic and 8 miles from Clark Air Base. Why, many indigenous aeta groups lived on the slopes of Pinatubo itself until the year it erupted!
The density of people living so close to an active and powerful volcano would make a good ingredient for a horror story, and it was for the Philippines. Luckily for us who were around that time, there were a handful of courageous and knowledgeable people who knew how to read the signs correctly, which began to manifest with an earthquake in 1990.
The earth shakes
On 16 July 1990, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit near Rizal town in Nueva Ecija, 60 miles northeast of Mt Pinatubo, at around 4:30pm. The massive earthquake led to 1,621 deaths in Central Luzon and the Cordilleras. One of the most devastated had been Baguio City in Benguet, which was cut off from the rest of Luzon because of landslides in Kennon Road.
Hyatt Terraces Hotel, the biggest hotel in Baguio, fell to the ground after the 1990 quake
But aside from the immediate destruction of infrastructure and the casualties, one other thing that resulted from the massive earthquake was that it jolted the surface of the earth beneath Central Luzon. Many volcanologists later linked this quake to the 1991 Mt Pinatubo eruption, although conclusive proof connecting the two events has been lost in history.
Warnings and evacuations
Eight months later, the earthquake of 1990 would be reproduced in March 1991 as a series of earthquakes rocked the villages near the slope of Mt Pinatubo. These earthquakes increased in intensity in the following months as it became clearer that the shakes were linked to volcanic activity.
This has got scientists of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) and the US Geological Survey worried and they immediately installed monitoring equipment and created evacuation plans for the weeks that followed. On 7 April, the first formal evacuation order was implemented for areas that were within 10km from the mountain.
In the months of March to May, volcanic activities were observed from Mt Pinatubo, including: eruptions of earth and steam and increased sulfur dioxide emissions. Hundreds of small tremors were also measured every day.
The first major eruption
Volcanic activities finally led to the rise of molten rocks called magma from the bowels of Mt Pinatubo. On the second week of June 1991, there was a series of eruptions that generated ominous clouds of ash above the mountains of Zambales. On 7 June, Philvolcs issued another evacuation alert, this time for areas 10 to 20km from the mountain. Three days later, 14,500 American personnel at Clark Air Base were evacuated.
The first major eruption happened on Independence Day, 12 June of 1991. This photo was taken by R.S. Culbreth of the US Air Force from Clark Air Base
On 13 June, the third alert was issued for areas 20 to 40km from the mountain. Phivolcs and the US Geological Survey were careful about the warnings they were sending out. They wanted a forceful warning that would convince the locals around the area to see the threat and evacuate as soon as possible. However, they didn’t want to misinform the public and cause complacency in the future warnings.
Evacuation plan for Mt Pinatubo
Nevertheless, the scientists knew that many Filipino lives were now in their hands, and that pressured them to remain accurate and level-headed at all times. Days before the biggest eruption, around 60,000 people living within 30km of the mountain left their homes to settle somewhere safer. However, many stubborn locals still remained despite the warnings.
After the last batches of evacuees left, the scientists who were monitoring Mt Pinatubo were the only ones in Clark Air Base. But monitoring Pinatubo’s activities were not their only concern. A tropical depression turned into a storm called typhoon Diding by the afternoon of 14 June, decreasing visibility of Pinatubo. It was dark and rainy when Pinatubo finally let loose, a scene fit for the end of the world.
15 June 1991
At 1:42pm, Mt Pinatubo finally blew up. The sky grew dark all over the Philippines and sheets of ash fell on top of homes, buildings and cars. In areas that were closer to the volcano, deadly rivers of ash called lahar ravaged the land, killing all in its wake. Places far from the mountain were not spared: slabs of ash mixed with water covered homes while ash made breathing difficult. Rocks pummelled rooftops, destroying properties, injuring people and killing pets and farm animals.
Mt Pinatubo’s eruption released a mushroom-shaped cloud of pyroclastic flow. The summit of the volcano was completely wiped out by the explosive eruption, leaving a caldera on top.
The caldera on the summit of Mt Pinatubo photographed on 1 August 1991
People choked for lack of fresh, clean air. Cars loaded with people who evacuated too late scurried away hours after the explosion. Many of those who couldn’t hitch a ride walked away from the ashen world in a trance.
The eruption caused a massive logistical nightmare as roads and electricity were cut off. Panic led to water and food scare. It took days before the damage was completely assessed, and by then the true power of Mother Nature became very real and fearsome.
Aftermath: negative and positive impacts
The aftermath of Pinatubo would leave a lasting impact locally and around the world that is still felt until today. Some of these include:
- Death toll of more than 700
- Displacement of 20,000 indigenous aetas
- Infrastructure damage that led to spread of illness and relocation
- Buried agricultural fields and communities led to loss of livelihood and precious land
- Gross domestic product fell by 3%
- Lahar continued to cause new damage to property and agriculture
- Ash lowered global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius until 1993
- Evacuation of the US military led to closure of the bases
Sulfur dioxide (marked red) released by Mt Pinatubo spread all over the earth’s equator two months after the eruption
Because of its worldwide impact and long-lasting effects, the Mt Pinatubo would be known as one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the past century. But despite the devastation, there were also a few silver linings.
Early and timed warning sent by Phivolcs and American scientists led at least 5,000 lives and at least $250 million in property to be saved. The Mt Pinatubo eruption is also considered a success story for volcanology thanks to round-the-clock monitoring and the professionalism of the scientists.
Today, Mt Pinatubo’s caldera has also transformed into a beautiful lake. That same crater that brought so much destruction is now a stunning tourist destination, with 3,000 climbers coming every year to swim or simply enjoy the breathtaking view. Nature works wonders, really!
A photo of the crater lake of Pinatubo by Jun Belen
More than twenty years after its eruption, Mt Pinatubo is back to sleep while we reel from its awesome, scary and beautiful power. The 1991 eruption is a lesson that Mother Nature is a force that cannot be stopped, but it can be out-smarted if people act in a timely and intelligent manner.
Disasters continue to face us today, and I hope the story of Mt Pinatubo’s eruption will serve as inspiration to the Philippines in the wake of climate change. We have more sophisticated technology on our side today, something the scientists in 1991 did not have. Yet they survived. I am positive we can do the same in the future.
Where were you when Mt Pinatubo erupted on 15 June 1991? What did you feel then, and what do you feel now for having survived such a massive disaster 20 years ago? What lessons do you think we can pick up from this devastation in the light of recent climate change disasters like typhoon Yolanda? Share your thoughts and experiences below!