Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Gods of Mt Merapi

As of today, news reports indicate that Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano has killed at least 283 people since it began erupting in October. Reportedly, more than 270,000 people are still living in makeshift camps to escape the lava flows and hot ash falls. Merapi killed some 1,300 in 1930, but experts say the current eruptions are the most severe since 1872. Merapi is the most active Indonesia volcano in a vast archipelago of 235 million people spread along the well-known “Ring of Fire”. About 90% of the world's earthquakes, and 80% of the world's largest earthquakes, occur along this ring. The Ring of Fire is a direct result of plate tectonics and the movement and collisions of crustal plates.

Life for those living near Indonesia's Mt. Merapi remains dangerous and difficult. Volcano scientists (volcanologists) believe that the eruptions are lessening, but they certainly can't guarantee the area won’t experience additional eruptions. Like earthquake predictions, volcanology involves lots of educated guessing. And like a lot of lessons in life, it matters who does the “guessing.”

One news report from a week ago interviewed Subandriyo, an Indonesian government volcanologist. At that time he estimated that the eruptions had disgorged approximately 4.6 billion cubic feet of rocks, sand, dust and gas. The thick ash fall has been destroying crops or even structures from its sheer weight. Pyroclastic flows of gas at hundreds of degrees F often follow river beds or depressions and hit communities that are adjacent to those waterways.

Subandriyo and his team actually predicted Mt. Merapi's eruption, including which way the searing gases and rocks would flow. "Our modeling was good, and the preparations for evacuation were good," he says, pointing to detailed maps. "The problem was with communication — in other words, disseminating the information to the people."

Actually, it appears that communication was not the primary problem, at least in some areas. It’s what people did with the knowledge available to them.

Subandriyo claimed that a man named Marijan, the spiritual guardian of the mountain, is partly to blame. Subandriyo notified Marijan that an eruption was coming, but Marijan's contacts in the spirit world told him otherwise. So, many villagers took no precautions. Marijan was found burned to death in his home, as were other villagers. Now the sultan of the region must select a new guardian for Mt. Merapi.

I’m not necessarily casting stones. I’ve seen too many U.S. Christians claim they had good reason for not following common sense advice or lines of evidence supported by at least reasonably sound science. I’m just saying…

1 comment:

Erin said...

Your last paragraph reminded me of a story:

When we were in Hawaii on the Volcanoes Nat'l Park tour, our guide told us an anecdote about Christianity versus the island superstitions. A missionary pastor moved to Hawaii, and he set up his house on the base of a volcano. To decorate his yard, he found some volcanic rocks from the mountain and created a nice rock garden. It is considered very bad luck to remove volcanic rocks from their spots, even more so to take some home with you as a souvenir. Well a short time later the volcano started to erupt. The natives warned the pastor to remove the rocks, but he wouldn't listen. The lava flows headed in the direction of his house, but he still wouldn't listen. He simply went to bed telling the natives that God would protect him. In the morning, he woke up to find lava flows all around his property, but they had divided around his fences and not destroyed his house or land. He proudly brought the natives over to show how God had saved him. They grinned and replied, "Just to be safe, we snuck into your backyard last night and removed the lava rocks." The angered missionary packed up and left that day.

I think the story/superstition are spread to keep the islands from disappearing, not from erosion but from greedy tourists!