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Mount Tuvurvur has been spewing volcanic ash for the past few days in Rabaul.
Photo: Chris Johnson

May 15, 2001
Witnessing Violence
  Real Audio

  Watch a video footage of Mount Tuvurvur erupting:
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Log Transcript

Since boarding the Odyssey yesterday I have been a witness to spectacular eruptions of ash and steam from Mount Tuvurvur, one of a pair of active volcanoes (the other called Vulcan) that flank the entrance to Rabaul harbor, a valuable deep-water port-and itself a flooded volcanic crater. Though only Tuvurvur is erupting now, these two volcanoes have twice erupted together-first in 1937 when 507 people died, and again in 1994. In the intervening years, World War II visited Rabaul with violence created by humans: in January, 1942 Japan attacked, and after taking Rabaul from a small Australian force fortified the town and its surrounding volcanic hills by digging 580 km of connected tunnels for bunkers, Anti-aircraft guns, hospitals, warehouses, gun emplacements and barracks. At the height of the war these facilities were home to 97,000 Japanese troops. But the allies dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Rabaul which kept the troops underground and from participating in conflicts elsewhere. It also flattened the town. When Japan surrendered, the troops were still in place and it took two years to return them to their homes.

But after each episode of violence, the local inhabitants of Rabaul rebuilt their town and for the next 50 years it thrived as a deep water port. But when Tuvurvur and Vulcan again exploded in 1994, this time with little warning, the use of Rabaul by people was ended for good for the town was buried under meters of ash. But thanks to a well rehearsed evacuation plan only 5 people died even though 50,000 were made homeless and suffered terrible privations as a result. Most of these survivors moved to the town of Kokopo, about 8 miles away across the water from now deserted Rabaul. But Rabaul continues to have a place in their lives: the people still use its wharf since Kokopo lacks a deep water harbor.

Two days ago, the crew of Odyssey were seeing more violent eruptions, and twice on Wednesday night saw columns of red lava blasted high into the air and red hot boulders bouncing down the slope in the general direction of Odyssey's anchorage. This morning Tuvurvur was exploding every 2-4 minutes and twice I saw giant boulders hurled to a height of about 500 feet (a fact I determined by timing their fall-about 5 seconds). Using the size of fishermen on shore to judge how big these boulders were, I could see that they must be at least as big as a large car, and perhaps a lot bigger. (The fishermen appeared to pay no attention to what was going on above them.)

Roger Payne joins the Odyssey in Rabaul for the next few weeks as it continues to survey the Bismarck Sea.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Yesterday, a ship unloading at Rabaul wharf was slowly covered with ash from the fallout that drifted over it after each explosion. In the afternoon, Chris and Gen Johnson went to the local school lying beneath the volcano to talk to the students. During their stay they twice heard loud explosions, but no one left and the lessons continued. I have often seen volcanoes steam gently but never before have seen one erupting violently... nor heard it. The roar of escaping steam sounds so similar to a low flying jet I think it would be hard to tell the two apart. But we also hear heavy explosions that roll like thunder as the sounds echo from the surrounding mountains.

The violence of Nature is always astonishing, and when one considers that what we are seeing is peace itself compared to the meteor strike that ended the dinosaurs, or a storm on Jupiter, or the explosion of a supernova, or the big bang that started it all, it is obvious that there exist levels of violence in Nature that we cannot possibly comprehend, and that however violent anything we experience may seem it is mild on the scale of ordinary violence in the universe. We live in an unbelievably protected, out-of-the-way corner of a violent universe. It is this peace upon which all life is totally dependent.

Log by Roger Payne

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