Categorized | Featured, Sci-Tech, Volcano

Volcano Watch: Mount Fuji workshop focused on how to manage tourism on active volcanoes

Mount Fuji on the island of Honshu, Japan. The snow-capped inactive volcano, surrounded at lower levels by clouds in this image, lies several miles south of Tokyo. January 26, 2003 Photo via the ill fated Space Shuttle Columbia mission by NASA.

Mount Fuji on the island of Honshu, Japan. The snow-capped inactive volcano, surrounded at lower levels by clouds in this image, lies several miles south of Tokyo. January 26, 2003 Photo via NASA.

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

In early November, volcano scientists from Hawai‘i, Chile, Indonesia, Italy, and Japan participated in a workshop at the Mount Fuji Research Institute in Japan. Talks and discussions during this workshop were focused on the best ways to protect tourists in active volcanic areas.

Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san as the Japanese address the mountain, is 3,776 m (12,389 ft) tall and towers above the surrounding communities. USGS photo.

Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san as the Japanese address the mountain, is 3,776 m (12,389 ft) tall and towers above the surrounding communities. USGS photo.

Japanese volcanologists have been quite concerned about the possible effects of a Mount Fuji eruption on the thousands of visitors who hike up the sacred mountain every day. Rightfully so. In September 2014, an unexpected phreatic eruption of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan (after Fuji), killed 57 hikers. Then, in late June 2015, a small ash eruption occurred at Mount Hakone, but potentially active areas were already closed, and there were no injuries or deaths.

Japan has 110 active volcanoes (including submarine volcanoes), 47 of which are continuously monitored for signs of unrest. During the workshop, Japanese speakers representing volcano science and monitoring, the tourist industry, media, and police, described measures currently in place and those planned to protect tourists on Japan’s volcanoes, specifically, Fuji, Hakone, and Unzen.

At Mount Fuji, in addition to tourists, approximately 560,000 residents live within its evacuation zones. During the summer, about 300,000 mountaineers visit Fuji, with up to 10,000 people climbing the volcano each day. Possible eruptive products for this volcano include lava flows, snowmelt mudflows, and ashfall—a “kaleidoscope of eruption” per Japanese scientists.

Methods to communicate hazards to and evacuate residents are similar to those in other countries. The challenge, however, is communicating with and evacuating hikers on Fuji, potentially in a short period of time.

Four main trails reach Fuji’s summit—Yoshida, Subashiri, Gotemba, and Fujinomiya. On Yoshida and Subashiri, the trail for ascent is completely different from the trail for descent. Mountain huts are numerous on ascending trails, but sparse on descending trails.

To reach and warn hikers on Mount Fuji, communication must be established to the network of mountain huts, but this does not help on trails with few huts. Therefore, alternate means of communicating with hikers are being considered.

Japanese scientists have evaluated the specific effects of several different eruption scenarios and have devised hiker evacuation routes for each scenario. The evacuation zones are meant to minimize exposure to ashfall at varying distances from the most recent and likely future volcanic vents. Scientists have also compiled the 17 most prominent steepest-descent paths for lava flows on Fuji, and each path has its own evacuation route.

Other workshop presenters also talked about recent volcanic activity in their respective countries and how hazards were communicated to visitors and residents.

In Chile, climbing, hiking, and skiing on Villarica and Calbuco volcanoes, both within national parks, were popular tourist activities. But recent eruptions on the volcanoes destroyed a resort, tourism center, and some homes, and caused park and highway closures, severely affecting the local tourism industry. At Villarrica, the mayor and tourism officials were eager to resume tourist activities, despite the uncertainty of future eruptions.

Mount Merapi. April 16, 2014. Photo by Crisco 1492

Mount Merapi. April 16, 2014. Photo by Crisco 1492

In Indonesia, volcano tourism is a growing industry, and experiencing problems similar to those in Chile. Merapi volcano erupted in 2010, killing more than 350 people, and again in 2013 and 2014. During the 2014 eruption, 600,000 residents and visitors were in harm’s way. Indonesian speakers emphasized the importance of tying volcano surveillance and reporting to tourist activities.

Sicily’s Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, attracts thousands of visitors every year. Frequent eruptions there have produced abundant ashfall, destroying crops, affecting vehicle transportation around the volcano, and frequently closing airspace above nearby airports.

A house destroyed by the pyroclastic flows that occurred during the 2010 Eruptions of Mount Merapi. Located in Cangkringan, Sleman, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Crisco 1492

A house destroyed by the pyroclastic flows that occurred during the 2010 Eruptions of Mount Merapi. Located in Cangkringan, Sleman, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Crisco 1492

A USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) scientist at the workshop summarized the recent lava flow threat to Pāhoa. Impacts there were mainly to private property and not within a park, so tourist opportunities were not the top priority. However, Hawai‘i County did eventually open a viewing area at the Pāhoa Solid Waste Transfer Station for several months after the lava flow threat had diminished.

Kīlauea Volcano’s ongoing eruptions attract nearly two million visitors to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park each year. If and when Mauna Loa erupts, that number is sure to increase. Workshops, like the one at Mount Fuji, are invaluable opportunities to gain and share information on how to safely manage tourism on Hawai‘i’s active volcanoes.

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