On Saturday, September 27, 2014, more than 50 people were killed and another 70 were injured when central Japan’s Mount Ontake erupted without warning, spewing rocks, ash and toxic gases. The death toll exceeded the 43 killed in the 1991 eruption of Mount Unzen in southern Japan, making it Japan’s worst fatal eruption since World War II.
Mount Ontake is known as one of Japan’s “100 Best Mountains” and is topped by a shrine that attracts large numbers of visitors, hiking enthusiasts and nature lovers. The number of hikers in Nagano surged to 730,000 in 2013, a 30% increase from five years ago.
Before the fatal eruption, seismologists had detected signs of increased seismic activity at Mount Ontake. However, since it’s one of Japan’s most active volcanos, the activity didn’t appear to be cause for alarm.
Is it possible to warn climbers of impending disaster at Mount Ontake?
In New Zealand, WIN-911 is responsible for saving lives in the area around Mount Ruapehu, another of the world’s most active volcanos. As mentioned in the case study, when Ruapehu’s crater fills with water between eruptions, the crater’s walls can collapse, causing tons of flood water, mud and sulfur to suddenly flow down the mountain, destroying virtually everything in its path. When this happened in 1953, the flood washed a train off a bridge, leading to the loss of 153 lives.
WIN-911 and others worked to develop the the Eastern Ruapehu Lahar Alarm and Warning System (ERLAWS). ERLAWS consists of three sites where sensors are located. ERLAWS was programmed to automatically activate barrier arms to close roads and bridges in the flood’s path. WIN-911 alarm notification software alerts police, council staff, transportation authorities and scientists.
While Mount Ontake’s volcanic activity did not cause fatal floods, an alarm notification system could likely have helped prevent a disaster like the one on September 27. Sensors at various sites could have been set up to monitor increased seismic activity, heat of volcanic gases, and other signals of an impending eruption. When one of the sensors signaled a possible event, WIN-911 alarm notification system would have alerted the appropriate people, who could then have evacuated the area and helped save the lives of countless visitors.
As the saying goes, “Hindsight is always 20/20.”