IT WAS feared to be the worst volcano eruption Bali had seen in decades.
When tremors started last month at Mount Agung, a volcano in Bali’s east that had sat dormant since a catastrophic eruption in 1963, authorities acted quickly.
Officials issued the highest possible volcano alert level. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes and a “red zone” around the volcano was designated as experts warned of its “imminent eruption”.
Meanwhile, thousands of Australian tourists in Bali, and those planning to visit for the school holidays, were whipped into a panic about whether they’d be safe.
Airlines braced for ash cloud chaos and insurance companies said an eruption was such a sure bet, they cut off travellers who sought coverage after it had hit the news.
Nothing about volcanoes is a foregone conclusion, but that was how sure everyone was Bali was about to be rocked by the Big One.
But after two weeks, there’s been nothing — except for some puffs of steam from Mount Agung’s crater.
Now Bali’s governor is begging Australia to lift its travel warning for the holiday island, saying it’s safe there after all.
So what happened to the volcano eruption that never was?
Mount Agung volcano, pictured here on Wednesday, October 4, has had people in Bali nervous for weeks. Picture: AP/Firdia LisnawatiSource:AP
The short answer is that Mount Agung is still simmering and the danger hasn’t gone away.
“The seismicity is still intensive and fluctuating. No signs of downhill activity,” US-based volcanologist Janine Krippner, who has been closely watching data from Bali, said on Thursday.
“The frequent volcanic earthquakes show volcanic activity instability. In the crater of Mount Agung are fractures and steam emission.”
Dr Krippner told Perth Now the latest reports suggested Agung was not slowing down.
“Sometimes magma does move a little faster and sometimes it takes a little longer,” she said.
“Right now the potential for an eruption is still high.”
Steam clouds containing sulfurous fumes have been observed up to 200 metres above the volcano’s summit.
But, Dr Krippner added, “No single sign is a sure thing that this is going to do anything.”
A man observes a map of Mount Agung shortly before the alert for the volcano is raised to the highest level on September 22. Picture: AP/Firdia LisnawatiSource:AP
Devy Kamil, a senior official at Indonesia’s Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation, said Agung’s situation was stable but the risk of an eruption had not decreased.
“You have acceleration prior to September 22. At that moment we increased the alert level, but thereafter the number of seismicity is almost the same day by day,” he told AFP.
Experts commenting on the possible eruption of Mount Agung have stressed that every volcano was different and every eruption was different. Scientists could study how Mount Agung erupted in the past, but there was no guarantee of a repeat performance.
Dr Heather Handley from Macquarie University told news.com.au Agung has had a varied history since the explosive eruption that seemingly came out of nowhere in 1963.
“In the late 1980s there were a few signs of activity, some smoke coming out of the top [of Agung], and then nothing,” Dr Handley said.
Mount Agung last erupted in 1963, which lead to the deaths of more than 1100 people. Picture: Indonesia HistoricalSource:AP
“Then there were a few earthquakes around 2009 and they monitored from space that the volcano was inflating, like swelling up, and they thought that was magma moving but then it deflated again so nothing happened.”
But Dr Handley said it was not for nothing Bali’s authorities raised the volcano alert to its highest level — level four.
“The seismic activity for the number of earthquakes they were seeing, they had not seen since they’d been monitoring the volcano,” she said.
“Anything is possible. The magma could be moving around and then just stop, the gas could escape from the top … it is possible.
“But for them to raise the alert level to level four, they think it’s more likely to erupt than it’s not.”
Many people in evacuation centres who were told to return home this week aren’t taking their chances.
Devastation from the 1963 eruption, near Besakih Temple on the slope of Mount Agung. Picture: AP/Horst FaasSource:AP
Bali officials have evacuated some 144,000 people since September 22, when the alert level for Agung was raised, including about 75,000 people living outside the 9-to-12 kilometre exclusion zone around the volcano.
Many of those people whose homes are outside the exclusion zone have been told to leave evacuation centres but many have refused, AFP reports.
“Honestly I don’t have the courage to go home right now because my children are still young, our house is located in a narrow alley, I don’t know if we will have enough time to evacuate [if Agung erupts],” mother Cecilia Eka Setyarini Utami, who fled to Denpasar, told AFP.
Meanwhile Australia’s insurance industry is remaining prepared for the possibility of an eruption.
“When the warnings about a possible eruption of Mount Agung were issued, and it coincided with Australian school holidays, we made contingency plans in case flights in and out of Bali were grounded,” Phil Sylvester from Travel Insurance Direct told news.com.au.
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes near the volcano’s danger zone. Picture: AFP/Bay IsmoyoSource:AFP
“School holidays are not over yet, and we have thousands of travellers on the island, so those plans stay in place — hopefully we never have to use them.”
But as far as Bali Governor Mangku Pastika is concerned, the panic is over.
The governor has urged governments of other countries, including Australia, to drop travel warnings about the increased volcanic activity in Bali, the ABC reports.
“I have talked to them, there are five countries that have increased their travel warning,” he said.
“I asked them to lift that warning because it is still safe, they agreed to lift that soon.”
His pleas come as figures from the Bali Hotel and Restaurant Association shows 5000 tourists cancelled their bookings for October — about a 20 per cent fall in trade.
A man sits next to a paddy field as Mount Agung volcano is covered by clouds on September 29. Picture: AFP/Bay IsmoyoSource:AFP
The Australian government’s current warning for Bali urges travellers to “contact your airline or tour operator directly to confirm travel plans [and] monitor local media reports and follow the instructions of local authorities” as a result of Agung’s recent increased activity.
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