Volcano erupts in Papua New Guinea forcing communites to evacuate and flights to re-route

No immediate reports of injuries or damage but local residents have to leave their homes and Australian airline Qantas changes route of three flights after ash rises

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 6:03pm

A volcano erupted today in eastern Papua New Guinea, spewing rocks and ash into the air, forcing the evacuation of local communities and flights to be re-routed, officials and reports said.

Mount Tavurvur, which destroyed the town of Rabaul when it erupted simultaneously with nearby Mount Vulcan in 1994, rumbled to life early this morning on the tip of the remote island of New Britain.

“The eruption started slow and slowly developed in a Strombolian [low level] eruption with incandescent projections, accompanied by explosion noises and ongoing loud roaring and rumbling noises,” the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory said.

Flight paths between Sydney and [Tokyo] Narita, and Sydney and Shanghai have been altered as a result of the volcanic ash cloud over Rabaul in eastern Papua New Guinea
Qantas spokeswoman

The Australian government issued a warning against travelling to the area.

“Authorities have evacuated communities close to the volcano,” it said. “Residents of Rabaul town have been advised to remain indoors to avoid falling ash.” it said.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, in Darwin, said the ash cloud was drifting southeast.

“The eruption was to 60,000 feet [about 18,300 metres], which is flight level,” an official from the centre, Cyndee Feals, told AFP.

“There was two hours of high-level eruption. The ash was initially blowing to the southwest but has now turned to the southeast and we expect it to clip the edge of Australian airspace later today, but we don’t expect ash over Australia.”

The ash was forecast to move towards the Solomon Islands and then Vanuatu in the Pacific.

Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier airline, said today that three flights had been re-routed to avoid the ash cloud in the east of Papua New Guinea.

“Flight paths between Sydney and [Tokyo] Narita, and Sydney and Shanghai have been altered as a result of the volcanic ash cloud over Rabaul in eastern Papua New Guinea,” a spokeswoman said.

“QF21, QF22 and QF130 will now fly over central Papua New Guinea to avoid the cloud.”

She said that the changed in route would only add 10 or so minutes to the journey.

In Rabaul, the ground was covered in a layer of ash, local reports said.

“Police have cautioned people not to panic but remain indoors and listen to local Radio East New Britain for updates,” the PNGloop website said.

“The situation has eased except for the rumbling and roaring as rocks are shot into the air.”

Its correspondent in Rabaul added that “all shops are closed. The provincial disaster officials are in town”.

The 688-metre tall volcano has erupted several times before, notably 20 years ago.

In 1994, major eruptions at both Tavurvur and nearby Mount Vulcan destroyed much of Rabaul, with falling ash causing buildings to collapse.

Although loss of life was minimal, owing to a quick evacuation, looters ransacked the town. Another large eruption of Tavurvut occurred in 2006.

Rodney Aua, operations manager of Rabaul International Hotel, said police were out in force today to prevent any looting as businesses closed their doors.

“In Rabaul some people have closed their businesses and are moving to areas as far away as possible,” he told AFP. “The police are there to make sure looting doesn’t happen again, like in 1994.”

Despite the volcano continuing to rumble, Aua said the hotel was still 50 per cent full.

He said for locals today was just another day in Papua New Guinea, which sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where high volcanic and seismic activity is the norm.

“The situation is pretty calm,” Aua said. “For locals most of us have grown up here and this is normal, although we haven’t seen this sort of activity for a while.”

Meanwhile, Iceland, a volcanic island nation south of the Arctic Circle, in the North Atlantic, put international airlines on the highest level of alert today and banned air traffic near its largest volcano after an eruption on Thursday night.

The Icelandic Meteorological Institute raised the alert over the site of Bardarbunga volcano to red, while flights have been banned below 1,500 metres, the air traffic controller Isavia today. But Iceland’s airports were still open, it said.

Iceland, which is home to more than 100 volcanic mountains, has been on alert since Bardarbunga began rumbling two weeks ago. 

No significant ash had been detected and the eruption appeared to be small, the institute said.

Airlines are on alert because of fears there could be a repeat of 2010’s disruption, when another Icelandic volcanic eruption caused the biggest closure of  European airspace in peacetime.

It halted more than 100,000 flights and left up to eight million passengers stranded. Eruptions pose a danger to aircraft because glass-like particles in ash can severely damage jet engines.

So far today, airlines, including Lufthansa, British Airways and discount specialist EasyJet, said they were continuing to operate flights as normal, but were monitoring the situation.