Japan lacks coordinated efforts to defuse volcanic time bomb

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TOKYO – You could safely call all of Japan a geological hotspot. It is home to 7% of the world’s active volcanoes, although it only accounts for 0.25% of its total landmass.

Experts warn the country is ill-prepared for a major eruption. Many active volcanoes in Japan are located near residential areas, posing huge risks to people’s lives and livelihoods.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the eruption of Fugen Peak from Mount Unzen in Nagasaki Prefecture in 1991. When Mount Unzen detonated its summit, it set off a massive pyroclastic flow – clouds of ash and rapidly moving superheated gas – which killed more than 40 people. It was the first major volcanic disaster in post-war Japan.

But the long-standing problem of poor policy coordination between government organizations tasked with preparing for the next big eruption remains unresolved. And as many older experts retire, there are growing concerns about a shortage of people capable of meeting this public safety challenge. The government’s slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a warning, highlighting the dangers of overlooking long-term public safety challenges.

At the end of May, more than 2,000 residents participated in a large-scale disaster exercise jointly conducted by the towns of Shimabara and Minamishibabara, located at the foot of Fugen Peak.

In the June 1991 eruption, the toxic flow of solidified lava, ash and hot gases killed 43 people, including a Nikkei photographer. At the moment, Fugen Peak is calm, but experts say the enormous lava dome near the summit, a steep mound formed by lava spewed out from the volcano, could collapse.

Japan has more than 100 active volcanoes. An eruption even more deadly than that of Mount Unzen occurred in 2014 on Mount Ontake in central Japan. This event left 63 people dead or missing, mostly mountaineers, and was the worst volcanic disaster in Japan since the end of World War II.

In 2019, increased volcanic activity at Hakone, a popular spa resort near Tokyo, resulted in entry restrictions. And the legendary Mount Fuji – Japan’s highest peak, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the nation’s geographic symbol – is also an active volcano. Some volcanologists say it could erupt at any time.

But the government has been extremely slow to respond to the security risks posed by these volcanoes, experts say. There is no single agency in Japan dedicated to the management of volcanic disasters.

Public research institutes and universities are engaged in vital research for monitoring volcanic activity and disaster prevention, but they operate independently and lack effective coordination. Human resources and expertise are dispersed.

Government organizations that study volcanoes are divided among seven government departments, agencies and companies. Meetings to discuss disaster reduction usually involve a little more than information about what various agencies are doing.

Since 2019, the government has been operating a system designed to allow government organizations and universities to share research and surveillance information. But progress has been elusive. Since universities pay out of pocket to install and maintain surveillance equipment, they tend to focus on their own research, showing little interest in working with others. The system is designed to bring together 14 institutions and universities to share information, but only 10 have participated so far. Some institutions have a policy of not publishing their data.

Yuichi Morita, a former professor at the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo and currently a senior researcher at the National Institute for Earth Sciences and Disaster Resilience Research, says the problem stems from the lack of an organization to coordinate research and monitoring by various institutions.

Before Mount Ontake suddenly erupted on September 27, 2014, the Japan Meteorological Agency did not issue an alert despite warning signs. The agency maintained its Volcanic Alert Level for the mountain at Level 1 on its five-point scale.

Japanese Self-Defense Forces troops scale Mount Ontake days after the September 27, 2014 eruption, which left 63 people dead or missing. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Defense) © Reuters

A government-appointed investigative panel found insufficient communication between the organizations involved as there was no established method for sharing information about volcanic earthquakes and other telltale signs. The panel called for the creation of an integrated system to comprehensively assess eruption risks and take action to prevent disasters.

Many volcanic countries have national institutions that conduct integrated studies and monitoring of volcanoes under normal circumstances, and respond to emergencies. The United States Geological Survey, the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and the Indonesian Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation serve as command centers for efforts to minimize social and economic disruption from the activity. volcanic and eruptive.

An even more serious problem for Japan is the decrease in the number of experts in volcanology. Predicting eruptions requires a pool of researchers familiar with the characteristics of the volcano in question and who can work with local governments to set up fixed observation points.

In 2019, Japan had only 109 experts in predicting volcanic eruptions, less than one for each active volcano in the country, according to the Science Ministry.

With some seasoned researchers on the verge of retirement, the shortage of trained people will become even more severe in the years to come, compromising Japan’s ability to predict volcanic eruptions and mitigate their impact.

Because Japan’s volcanoes have been at rest in recent years, research funding has stagnated. Few universities have the financial means to employ volcanologists. The question is whether they will be within reach the next time one of the country’s volcanoes comes alive.



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