Volcano Hazards/Safety

Safety On Volcanoes

If you ever wondered if you could climb a volcano and peer into the crater then the answer is yes, it can be done depending on the state of activity. But the most important thing to remember is that volcanoes are not adventure playgrounds as this is serious nature you are dealing with. There are many hazards along the way in which you will encounter on volcanoes whether they are active or not. Therefore, you cannot just climb a volcano as it could be asking for trouble so you will need to research information about a particular volcano you are thinking of going to and study it’s hazards and eruptive cycle, and learn the evacuation routes in an event of an eruption. It is also strongly recommended that you hire a guide as you will need to know where you are going considering you can easily get lost off track. If there are fees to pay to get on the volcano then pay it! As it could mean a matter of life and death for you as people may come looking for you if you’re lost or injured. If a guide says it’s too dangerous to go up too close to somewhere then he means it’s too dangerous to go near! You will also need to bring certain items with you whilst climbing up a volcano. Another issue to consider is that the closer you approach a proximity of an active crater or vent, the higher the risk you put yourself in. The level of risk depends on the volcano and how active it is.

Disclaimer: This page is not to encourage people to just go climbing up a volcano, it is there to provide safety tips should you happen to decide to go climbing one.

Hazards

A’a Lava Flows

A’a lava moves quite slowly so you’ll have plenty of time to outwalk it. However, walking on hardened A’a lava flows can be risky as the surface is very jagged and brittle, and therefore could cause you an injury and cut you as it has a very unstable terrain. Be extra careful when walking on thinner crust of A’a lava as the heat underneath can melt the soles of your shoes. Unfortunately, alot of tourists had this problem when hiking on Pacaya volcano.

Acid Lakes

Not all craters containing lakes are safe. When volcanic gases from beneath the surface of the lake interact with water then a chemical reaction causes the water to turn into acid and would therefore change colour. Acid water tends to be corrosive and can emit nasty vapours.

Altitude Sickness

As you climb up to the upper slopes, you may find that the Oxygen level gets thinner resulting in running out of breath easily, nausea, and headaches. Take a rest when you need to, drink water, and take deep breaths as it’s harder to breathe at high altitudes.

A Quiet Volcano

When a volcano or a vent appears to be quiet, it can draw you into a false sense of security thinking that’s it’s safe to approach. Quiet volcanoes have been known to erupt unexpectingly so get the latest information if in doubt.

Armed Robbers

It has been known to happen for some tourists to be robbed of their belongings whilst hiking on some volcanoes in certain parts of the world. It’s more of a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Travelling in groups decreases the risk of being robbed.

Bad Weather

Wind, rain, snow, and fog can make things risky when hiking on a volcanoes. Lightning can be very fatal as you’re on high ground. A tourist was struck and killed by lightning while on Pacaya volcano. Your best defence from lightning would be to remove all metal and electrical items you got and to leave them in one place whilst you crouch down in an area away from your belongings.

Darkness

If you are hiking a volcano at night or that you happen to get caught up in nightfall then the risks of serious injury is greatly increased as you won’t be able to see where you’re going. A good torch may prevent this.

Entry Of Lava Into Sea

This occurs commonly at oceanic hotspot volcanoes namely on Hawaii, Galapagos Islands, and Reunion. When molten lava pours into the sea, it boils the water creating steam plumes. Standing on the edge of land to the sea at the point of lava entry is putting yourself at risk of being burned by steam plumes and also steam explosions which can hurl rocks into the air. You are also at risk from waves at high tide as being hit by one is like having a ton of boiling water thrown at you.

Fumaroles

These come in a form of small vents or fissures where it emits steam and gases originating from water or magma. You are at risk of being burned when approaching them.

Lahars

These come in a form of volcanic mud which are a mixture of volcanic debris and water, and are known to travel at fast speeds down valleys and gulleys often causing destruction on a large scale. They occur when an erupting volcano melts the snow on the upper slopes or when heavy rain interacts with volcanic material. Get up to higher ground to avoid lahars.

Landslides

When part of a land on the slopes becomes unstable, it comes tumbling down the slopes. Bad weather and earthquakes are commonly known to cause this.

Lava Bench Collapse

This occurs at oceanic hotspot volcanoes namely on Kilauea volcano. It happens when a portion of land formed by hardened lava becomes unstable and therefore collapses into the sea. At Kilauea tourists have actually died when getting caught up in a lava bench collapse whilst trying to get close to the lava flows. The terrain may seem stable but it’s not.

Lava Dome Collapse

When a lava dome or part of a lava dome collapses incandescent rocks break away and come tumbling down the slopes at high speeds forming a pyroclastic flow. This is common on subduction zone volcanoes.

Lava Fountains

These come in a form of Hawaiian and Strombolian eruptions. Standing close to one will get you burnt to death from falling lava.

Lava Tubes

These form by the crusting over of a lava channel and lava is known to travel vast distances inside them. Because they are hollow, the ground where the roof of a lava tube is can be unstable. Should a roof of a lava tube collapse and you happen to be caught up in it, then it could potentially cause you bad injuries but if an active lava flow is present inside then you will die instantly.

Muddy Terrain

It is common to find muddy trails on volcanoes. You are at risk of slipping so be careful.

Naive Attitude

This is probably more dangerous than most risks themselves. You might get some idiots with that “It’ll never happen to me” attitude whom have a lack of knowledge on volcanoes and may just decide to climb one without listening to warnings first. This could cost you your life. Some foolish tourists have been maimed or killed attempting to climb the Arenal volcano.

No Guide

Not having a guide could put you at risk of getting lost. Local guides usually have a good inside knowledge of a volcano in question and will know which way to go and what areas are the most dangerous.

Pahoehoe Lava Flows

These come in a more liquid gooey form. When walking on hardened Pahoehoe lava flows watch out for fresh looking cooled lava which comes in a form of a glassy appearance or is jet black in colour, it could still have hot lava on the inside!

Pyroclastic Flows

Pyroclastic flows come in a form of an ashy cloud full of super hot gases and rocks which hugs the slopes of a volcano when tumbling down at roaring speeds and are the most dangerous type of eruption. Like water, they will travel down a terrain with the least resistance such as a valley or a channel. They will devastate anything that lies in it’s path and there is no way of outrunning them. If you happen to be caught up in a path of an approaching pyroclastic flow then the chances are you’re gonna die. Your best defence perhaps would be to move up to higher ground and away from the pyroclastic flow real fast, although this does not guarantee your survival. Plan potential escape routes.

Rock Falls

Loose rocks on any terrain are known to come tumbling down for whatever reason and can potentially cause a serious injury.

Standing On The Edge Of A Crater

If you are standing on the rim of an active crater or vent then you’re prone to being engulfed by an explosion or having a part of a crater collapse underneath you in an earthquake which could more likely result in death. As well as studying the eruption cycle of the volcano and how often it erupts, limit your time to as little as possible when standing close to an active crater or vent. The longer you stay, the more at risk from death you put yourself in.

Volcanic Explosions

From Strombolian to Plinian eruptions you are at risk of getting hit from falling debris such as rock or ash. Some rocks as they fall from an explosion are known to be bigger than cars. Standing close to impact can be very fatal. If you happen to be close to a Strombolian, Vulcanian, or Phreatic explosion then I would say your best defence is to duck behind a large rock if there is any around although this does not guarantee your survival.

Volcanic Gases

As well as producing water vapour, volcanoes produce toxic gases which can irritate the eyes, throat, and lungs as well as resulting in death. The main gases found on volcanoes are Carbon Dioxide, Sulpher Dioxide, Hydrogen Sulphide, Hydrochloric Acid, and Hydrogen. If you have no gas mask present, it might be a good idea to stay away from depressions where a large concentration of gases are present.

Wild Animals

Depending where in the world you are there may be dangerous animals roaming around or animals you may want to avoid. This includes bears, big cats, snakes, mosquitoes, poisonous spiders, poisonous caterpillars, wild pigs, and grazing cattle.

Equipment

Backpack

You will need this to carry your food, drink, extra clothing, etc.

Cap

When close to the summit of a volcano, you will find that you’re very exposed to the sun regardless of the summit temperature and could therefore cause headaches. A Baseball cap may prevent this or, wear a wide brimmed hat.

Digital Camera

An optional item to bring along with you although you might find that you want to take alot of photos to show your folks back home. I’d personally suggest to bring one with you.

First Aid Kit

When an injury occurs, these could come in handy with plasters, bandages, etc.

Flask

Perhaps to help keep you warm in cold regions on Earth you might want to fill one of these up with your favourite soup.

Food

Something light to eat like a couple of sandwiches is a suitable food source to bring with you. A small tasty sweet snack like a packet of biscuits or some chocolate will help conserve your energy. A can or bottle of fizzy drink may also help restore your energy after a long hike to the top.

Gas Mask

Volcanoes do half produce some nasty gases, some of it can irritate your eyes and lungs, others can actually kill you. Large concentration of gases can build up especially in depressions so a gas mask is important to wear near a crater. The best gas mask to wear is one that protects you from acidic gases like Hydrogen Chloride and Sulpher Dioxide.

GPS Locator

An optional item but these gadgets help pinpoint your location by Longitude and Latitude when calling for help.

Helmet

Wearing one of these could potentially save your life from falling debris from Strombolian eruptions on certain erupting volcanoes especially in particular, on Etna, Stromboli, and Yasur volcanoes.

Leather Gloves

These are optional but rocks and hardened A’a lava flows can cut your hands whilst grabbing hold of them. Recently erupted rocks can also still be hot when you want to handle them.

Long Sleeved Top

Whether it’s a sweater or a track top it’s important to bring one with you as it will start to get windy and chilly at high altitudes especially at the summit.

Map/Compass

Map and Compass could help you find your way round if you get lost.

Mobile Phone (Cell Phone)

Useful to have with you to call for help in case you get lost or injured. Please take note that not all volcanoes have reception.

Rain Jacket

When the weather starts to get bad wear a rain jacket to prevent getting soaked.

Ski Poles

These are optional to use but could help aid you with hiking up a snow capped volcano such as Cotopaxi or Villarrica.

Sleeping Bag

Something for you to sleep in when camping at high altitudes which get chilly at night.

Strong Hiking Shoes

The most suitable footwear to use whilst climbing a volcano are hiking boots with ankle support. Rough terrain (Especially hardened lava) can easily damage trainers. If going around active lava flows (especially in Hawaii) then you might want to wear hiking boots with non-rubber soles so they don’t melt.

Sun Lotion

You are at risk of catching a sunburn in hot regions on Earth and also on summits of volcanoes (Where you’re pretty much exposed to the sun). Some sun block to put on your skin may help.

Sunglasses

These are optional but they will protect your eyes from glare from the sun.

Tent

Bring one of these along with you to camp overnight in when you know that a volcano hike is going to take more than a day. Camp in a safe place away from an area which could potentially cause you serious injury as well as away from areas at high risk from volcanic activity.

Torch (Flashlight)

Hiking on volcanoes at night can be dangerous as you’re at great risk of injury so you’ll therefore need to see where you’re going. It is important to bring a torch or a headlamp with you if you think you’re going to get caught up in darkness like for example, arriving on Pacaya volcano late afternoon.

Warm Jacket

Another important item of clothing to wear to protect you from the freezing cold weather when on a snow capped volcano or cold regions on Earth.

Water

It is very important to carry at least a 1.5 litre bottle of water with you as a long hike up a volcano can puff you right out and put you at risk from dehydration. Never neglect water.

Woolly Hat

When in cold regions on Earth or on a snow capped volcano, this is very important to wear to protect your head from the freezing cold weather.

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