Illustration: Mark Thomas

Lava, ash, debris, poisonous gases, airborne shards… when a volcano blows, you don’t want to be close by. But what if you are?

Award-winning geologist Professor Dougal Jerram knows the dangers of being in the path of an erupting volcano, having studied volcanic margins all over the world. He’s also an expert in surviving them.

Avoiding the initial debris is only part of the battle, he says, as waves of hot gas and rocks may follow. “That was what killed most of the population of Pompeii,” says Professor Jerram. And that’s before rivers of mud and boulders begin to flow. This is what to do if a volcano erupts near you….

Find shelter from the shower of ash, rocks and volcanic bombs, but beware: ash accumulates quickly on roofs, making them collapse. Locate a safe route away from the volcano as soon as possible. When the eruption column collapses, you may be hit by pyroclastic density currents – hot gas and rock travelling at up to 700kph.

“If a pyroclastic density current is barrelling its way towards you, there’s little chance of survival”
Professor Dougal Jerram

If a pyroclastic density current is barrelling its way towards you, there’s little chance of survival unless you find a sturdy bunker below ground. When Mount Pelée erupted on Martinique in 1902, more than 30,000 people were killed, but a convict in a subterranean cell survived. After the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980, gophers emerged from their dens to discover all the trees had disappeared.


Explosive eruptions fill the air with volcanic shards that can be deadly if inhaled. Lava flows carry invisible poisonous gases like sulphur dioxide. In both cases, a good face mask can be a lifesaver. If you don’t have a mask, dampen any fine-cotton clothing you can get your hands on and hold it over your mouth and nose.

More information about how to survive a volcanic eruption

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Post-eruption, there is still the threat of lahars: volcanic debris dislodged by melting snow or torrential rain and sent hurtling downhill. In 1985, more than 23,000 people were killed by these deadly mudflows after Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted. Lahars follow riverbeds and access points down the volcano, so seek higher ground.

Eruptions can, in part, be predicted. Volcanologists produce hazard maps based on eruptive records, and modern technology including GPS mapping and drones that measure heat and gases can alert us to any approaching danger. Warning system networks have been placed in volcanic areas – towns close to Katla in Iceland, for example – to watch for signs of potential flooding or tsunamis. Such measures are invaluable, as even a few extra minutes of reaction time could save your life.

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03 2016 The Red Bulletin

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