Rabaul: Under the Volcano

Rabaul in 1969.  Source

Rabaul in 1969. Source

The weather is nice and the scenery is beautiful in Rabaul, the capital city of East New Britain province in Papua New Guinea (PNG)…until 1994.

A volcanic eruption in 1994 pretty much destroyed Rabaul. Luckily, the town’s residents had already evacuated spontaneously, which greatly reduced the death toll. Earlier eruptions had claimed hundreds of lives; only five people died in 1994.

The provincial capital was then moved to another town about 12 miles away. Some of Rabaul’s residents, however, returned. They marked out property lines while the ash was still hot and now are rebuilding in the danger zone.

You have to be flexible and tough to live in Rabaul, PNG.

The human history

People first arrived in the region some 40,000 years ago. Southeast Asian traders visited it 5,000 years ago, and Europeans began colonizing it in the 19th century. The country of Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975.

East New Britain Province is on the northeast part of PNG’s New Britain Island and also includes the Duke of York Islands. Germany claimed New Britain as a protectorate in 1884, and it became the site of one of the first battles of World War I. Australia won that battle and occupied the island for the remainder of the war. Afterwards it became an Australian territory.

The Germans first called the little town by the harbor Simpsonhafen. Later, as they settled in, it became known as as Rabaul (“mangrove” in the local language). In the 1920s, the city became the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea and was well known in the West.

This image of the 1937 eruption was reportedly taken from a rescue ship.

This image of the 1937 eruption was reportedly taken from a rescue ship.

Rabaul’s days as a territorial base came to an end in 1937, when a VEI 4 eruption killed over 500 people and heavily damaged the city. The Australians rebuilt the city and moved back in. Then came World War II.

In December 1941, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Rabaul was evacuated. The Japanese bombed it heavily the next month and captured it. They landed thousands of land forces there, and thanks to its harbor, built Rabaul into a large naval and air operations base.

By 1943, there were 110,000 Japanese troops in Rabaul, ready to invade Australia.

The Allies boxed them in until the end of the war and then bombed the city, destroying it.

After the war, Australia rebuilt Rabaul again. The city was once more was a flourishing provincial capital and port…until 1994.

The volcanic history

Its recent human history is tumultuous, but Rabaul is in a geologic trouble zone, too.

As the Solomon Sea Plate subducts underneath New Britain part of it melts and rises up to the surface to feed the island’s many volcanoes.

The current Rabaul caldera, 5.6 miles wide and almost 9 miles long, formed when an older volcano had a VEI 6 eruption (similar to Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 blast) around the middle of the first millennium A.D.

Today the caldera is breached and collapsed. It underlies the harbor and has had frequent eruptions through many vents, including Rabalanakia, Sulfur Creek, Vulcan, and Tavurvur. Vulcan and Tavurvur are the most active.

They both erupted in the 1937 eruption with devastating pyroclastic flows and surges. A volcanological observatory was established at Rabaul after that eruption.

Surveillance from 1971 onwards showed that part of the caldera floor was rising and seismicity was increasing. Twice – in 1983 and 1984 – the city was almost evacuated, but the volcano did not erupt.

Space radar image of Rabaul after the eruption.  Ash deposits appear red-orange on the image, and are most prominent on the south flanks of Vulcan and north and northwest of Tavurvur (i.e., the southeast section of the town of Rabaul).

Space radar image of Rabaul after the 1994 eruption. Ash deposits appear red-orange on the image, and are most prominent on the south flanks of Vulcan and north and northwest of Tavurvur (i.e., the southeast section of the town of Rabaul). Note the blue pumice rafts clogging the inner bay.

Then, on September 19, 1994, after 19 hours of precursory events that led to a spontaneous evacuation of Rabaul, both Vulcan and Tavurvur went off in a VEI 4 eruption that destroyed the airport and buried much of the town under meters thick layers of ash. Most of the buildings in southeastern Rabaul collapsed, but thanks to the early evacuation, only five people died. Over 50,000 people were displaced by the eruption.

The 1994-1995 eruption disrupted the monitoring network around the caldera. Currently the volcano is monitored regularly for seismic activity and ground deformation, and occasionally temperature measurements at fumaroles and hot springs, geochemical data and other monitoring techniques are carried out there.

Recent eruptions

Vulcan has been quiet since 1994, but Tavurvur had VEI 2 eruptions in 2002 and 2005.

In 2006, Tavurvur erupted with a blast that shattered windows up to seven and a half miles away. This was a VEI 4 eruption, but those living in Rabaul were lucky.

As hotel owner Bruce Alexander told reporters, “It was an extremely lucky escape because the volume of ash that was pumping out, if it had landed on any built-up areas, you would have had flats, buildings, but it just so happens that it went over uninhabited areas.”

Tavurvur had a VEI 1 eruption in 2010 and a VEI 2 in 2011. In January 2013, it began an eruptive sequence that is still continuing, according to the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program.

Of course they photobomb volcanic eruptions at Rabaul.

Of course they photobomb volcanic eruptions at Rabaul.

The most recent activity there was on August 29, 2014 – the same day Icelandic volcano Bardarbunga began a fissure eruption. Once again, the town was saved by wind, although villages to the north had some ash fall. As Rory Stewart, another Rabaul hotel owner, told journalists:

The village of Malekina – it’s just really an annex to the town – moderate to heavy ashfall on that particular village. Some local houses had a heavy ash buildup and the roofs came down, but pretty much all the gardens are destroyed and the coconut trees as well. Basically everybody’s out-and-about brushing up what ash did fall. But the shops and businesses have been open as normal.

People continued sailing around Tavurvur, too. Someone recorded this shock wave from a blast on September 2 (h/t to Jascha Polet for tweeting the link):

Some 7,000 people live in Rabaul, under the volcano, now. The weather is good. The harbor is a handy port and attracts tourists. Now…if only the volcano would quiet down.


More information:

Categories: Sunday morning volcano

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