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Mount Pinatubo: Predicting a Volcanic Eruption

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 12.17.05
  • NOVA

No two volcanic eruptions happen in exactly the same way. Volcanoes are inherently unpredictable. Even so, scientists have learned to read the many signs volcanoes give off prior to an eruption in the hope of minimizing damage to lives and personal property. This video segment adapted from NOVA describes the race to read the signs presented by Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, just before it unleashed one of the most powerful eruptions of the 20th century.

NOVA Mount Pinatubo: Predicting a Volcanic Eruption
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 6m 57s
  • Size: 20.7 MB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

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Source: NOVA: "In the Path of A Killer Volcano"


For 600 years, Mount Pinatubo appeared to be sleeping. Towering 1745 meters (5725 feet) over the Philippine island of Luzon, the seemingly dormant volcano showed no signs of an impending catastrophic eruption. Then, in early April 1991, Pinatubo stirred, sending puffs of steam into the air. Soon after this first event, vulcanologists began measuring vibrations inside the mountain using seismometers, the same instruments used to measure earthquakes.

Seismometers record vibrations in the Earth. When rocks crack or slip, or when magma applies pressure to the inside of a volcano's magma channel, the surrounding rock vibrates, much like a tuning fork vibrates when it is struck. Seismometers record both the intensity of the vibration, measured by the height of the line on the seismogram, and the frequency, measured by the distance between the peaks and valleys on the graph. Scientists use the information they collect from seismic events to understand volcanic activity inside a volcano and to make predictions about impending eruptions.

By May 1991, seismic data, coupled with increased sulfur dioxide released from the volcano, suggested to scientists that new magma was filling the volcano's magma chambers. Pinatubo's rapidly growing lava dome foretold an imminent large-scale eruption. The combined evidence suggested to the vulcanologists that the volcano's magma chamber held a gas-charged, potentially explosive type of magma called andesite magma. Based on the evidence, all the necessary preconditions appeared to be in place to create a catastrophic eruption.

Part of the hazard assessment of Pinatubo's threat included field surveys to determine the size and extent of the volcano's previous eruptions. Scientists found volcanic debris from earlier eruptions cast up to 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the volcano. As a result, in early June officials evacuated 50,000 people from within this 16-kilometer (10-mile) perimeter.

When the volcano erupted on June 15th, the explosion was devastating. Still, thanks to accurate predictions and emergency preparations, only 500 people died, compared to the tens of thousands who might have lost their lives if they hadn't been evacuated in time.

To learn about how scientists use seismographs to predict volcanic eruptions, check out Seismic Signals.

To learn more about the challenges in predicting volcanic eruptions, check out Forecasting Volcanic Eruptions.

To see the devastation caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and Mount St. Helens, check out Mount Pinatubo: The Aftermath of a Volcanic Eruption and Mount St. Helens: Before and After.

Questions for Discussion

    • Why is it important for scientists to predict volcanic eruptions?
    • What effects could the emission of volcanic dust 100,000 feet (30,500 meters) in the atmosphere have upon life? What are the direct effects on life in the Philippines?
    • What kinds of evidence did the scientists rely on to predict that Pinatubo was about to erupt? What did the various kinds of data tell them?
    • What data did the scientists use to make the final decision to evacuate?
    • Speculate how the scientists knew that the June 12 eruption wasn't the main eruption. What evidence do you think they might have taken into account to draw this conclusion?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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