Mount Shindake volcano erupts in southwest Japan, sending islanders fleeing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 1:52pm

An explosive volcanic eruption rocked an island in southwestern Japan, prompting authorities to order residents to evacuate as massive plumes of black smoke and hot ash oozed from the 650-metre Mount Shindake.

The volcano erupted at 9.59am, sending smoke stretching 9 kilometres above the crater and a pyroclastic flow almost reaching the coast, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

At least one resident in Kuchinoerabu Island has suffered burns, according to the Kagoshima prefecture government.

The Self-Defence Forces were called to dispatch a disaster team and neighbouring prefectures were asked to scramble helicopters for rescue on the island located about 100 kilometres south of the southern tip of Japan’s main island of Kyushu, in the East China Sea.

Of the 137 residents on Kuchinoerabu, most have found shelter within the island, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo. Access to the island is limited to two ferry routes.

Kuchinoerabu has repeatedly seen eruptions and earthquakes, some of which have been deadly. A series of eruptions from late 1933 to early 1934 left eight people dead and 26 wounded, while an 1841 eruption burned down villages and claimed scores of lives.

More recently, the volcano erupted on August 3 last year. The black plumes of smoke stretched 800 metres from the crater and led to 87 people leaving the island the following day.

A 64-year-old guest house manager on the island said: “The sound [of the blast] was tremendous this time” and that she immediately ran to a shelter.

Another evacuee, Yukina Masuda, said: “The scale is far larger than last year’s eruption.”

“I have instructed the relevant personnel to do all they can to ensure the safety of islanders,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo.

The prime minister’s office set up a response team at its crisis management centre, and the Japan Coastguard and the SDF sent ships and aircraft to gather more information about the situation.

The evacuation warning comes as the weather agency’s alert for the island has been upgraded to the highest level of 5 – hitting the level for the first time since the volcanic alert system was introduced in 2007 – and up from 3, which imposes limits on climbing the volcano.

Experts had seen some unusual signs on the island for about a decade before last year’s eruption, and the latest eruption could be a relatively large, prolonged one, said Kagoshima University associate professor Ryusuke Imura.

Japan lies in the Pacific Ring of Fire and experts have warned that the magnitude 9 earthquake that hit northeastern Japan in March 2011 may have cranked up volcanic activity.

Mount Sakurajima, also in Kagoshima prefecture, saw an explosive eruption with a plume of 5km in August 2013. There were 178 eruptions of this type in March alone and last week an eruption led to a plume of 4.3 km.

The eruption last Sept. 27 of Mount Ontake in central Japan became the nation’s worst postwar volcanic disaster with a death toll of 57 and six people still missing, and the hot spring area at Mount Hakone near Tokyo has seen its ground level rise by up to 15 centimetres in two weeks this month.