Cracked Foundations and Changing Systems: The Mount Pinatubo Eruption

By: Cheyanne C., Hannah F., Isabelle C., Marlee F., Mia D., Peyton W., Sarah P.

Chronicling the Mount Pinatubo Eruption: From Myth to Magma Flow

The major Pinatubo eruption occurred on June 15th, 1991. But as early as March of 1991, there were signs that the mountain was waking up. A series of earthquakes shook the area over a period of several months, alerting the locals that Mount Pinatubo might become active for the first time in living memory. These frequent, low-magnitude earthquakes continued until the second of April of the same year, when there was an explosion on the north side of the mountain that opened up steam vents and a fissure, emitting sulfur fumes. The next day, locals led scientists from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to the site of the explosion. The scientists brought five seismic monitors and, realizing what the activity could mean, called the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program for help monitoring the situation. On April 23rd, the USGS team arrived and set up a home base with PHIVOLCS using seismic and volcanic tracking and predicting technology. Over the next few weeks, the team determined that Mount Pinatubo was capable of a very large eruption, but they couldn’t tell if or when the volcano would erupt, or how big the possible eruption would be. By late May of the same year, seismic activity was fluctuating daily and more and more craters were appearing at the base of the mountain. It was still nearly impossible to tell when it would erupt, but they were able to map the areas of the island that would be hit by a worst-case scenario eruption (which unfortunately ended up being very close to what actually happened). At this point, they still couldn’t officially recommend evacuation because the team wasn’t sure when the volcano would erupt. 

In early June, the activity really started to ramp up. On the sixth of June, a swarm of low magnitude earthquakes accompanied the inflationary tilt, or puffing up, of the volcano, along with a continuous low-level ash eruption. A few days later, the first magma approached the surface of the volcano; on June ninth, the evacuation orders began, ordering 25,000 people to evacuate. Clark U.S. Air Base evacuated 14,000 “non-essential personnel” and their families due to the impending threats of growing lava dome, higher level ash eruption, and a worrying amount and magnitude of seismic activity. The first big eruption occurred on June 12th—Philippine Independence Day—at 8:51 a.m. The ash from this eruption went around 12 miles into the air. At this point, officials evacuated everyone in a dangerous range, for a total of about 60,000 people evacuated. After this eruption, seismic activity ramped up again and it was clear the volcano wasn’t stopping there. From the 12th to the 15th, there were three more massive vertical eruptions and 13 smaller ones, which produced pyroclastic flows down the slopes of the mountain. The team of scientists didn’t leave until the 15th, when the stop-and-go eruptions turned into one continuous eruption, that sent golf-ball sized pieces of pumice down over the Air Base, and lahars formed the ash and lava mixing with the rain from Typhoon Yunya, carrying boulders down the side of the mountain. That eruption led to the collapse of the peak into a caldera, which the scientists could feel from where they spent the night, 28 miles away.

The Range of Bacobaco’s Wrath

Most directly, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo affected the island of Luzon, where the volcano resides. As Live Science recalls, as Pinatubo erupted, the Philippines was already facing a natural disaster in the form of Typhoon Yunya, also known as Typhoon Diding. It is also remembered, in the context of how so many people were able to evacuate before disaster, that there were reoccurring earthquakes striking the mountainside which concerned residents and prompted Filipino scientists to contact the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program to examine the tremors more closely. Thankfully, with these warning signs taken into careful consideration, many lives were saved as scientists  and officials called for evacuations, though the land surrounding Mount Pinatubo was ravaged. USGS documents that pyroclastic flows of lava seeped and exploded from the volcano, filling the surrounding valley, which polluted streams and destroyed crop fields. Even worse was the half-inch layer of ash, which Live Science reports covered 4,660 miles (7,500 square kilometers), but then spread further across the island and beyond the country of the Philippines because of Typhoon Yunya. It’s also explained that the ash falling from the sky mixed with the rains, creating lahars, a concrete-like mud, that collapsed roofs as far as nine miles (15 kilometers) away from the volcanic site, and USGS goes on to say that winds from the typhoon brought ash all across the South China Sea, affecting places as far as Cambodia. The initial effects of the eruption was not the end though, as there were earthquakes that followed and monsoons “eroded the thick pyroclastic deposits, recurring mudflows buried towns and farm fields, destroyed roads and bridges, and displaced more than 100,000 people,” as well as caused hundreds of deaths in addition to the original death toll.

Beyond the Philippines, USGS records that the ash cloud inoculated the stratosphere with nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide, which cooled the global temperature by nearly an entire degree fahrenheit (half a degree celsius), causing weather patterns across the globe to shift and the effects of climate change to subside for a period of time.

Exploring Myth and Environmental Impact

Though the effects of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991 can be seen in modern times, there is a much older history of the mountain among the Aeta people of the Philippines. They believe that there is a god–Apo Mallori–who lives on the mountain and is the source of their sustenance. Some of the Aeta elders believe that Apo Mallori is angry at illegal loggers who have stripped the mountainside of its trees and also at the Philippine National Oil Co., who has allowed drilling into the heart of the mountain. For them, Apo Mallori is punishing humanity for its injustices by raining ash over the land. In this ideology, humans are the prime agents for the seismic events that unfolded in 1991. One villager, Victorio Villa, told reporters in an interview in June of 1991, “‘It is our firm belief that had the lowlanders not disturbed our volcano, it would not have erupted.’” Jemisin plays with this ideology in The Broken Earth Trilogy, using seismic catastrophism as a response to injustice by writing, “So where they should have seen a living being, they saw only another thing to exploit. Where they should have asked, or left alone, they raped.” In this trilogy, Father Earth is angry at humanity for being destructive and for the loss of his child, the moon. This triggers seismic events like earthquakes and volcanoes, the cause of the Seasons in this world. Myths, stories, and traditions are an integral part of people’s ways of life and are important parts of humanity. To understand Mount Pinatubo’s history in this way is to understand humanity’s role in the destruction of the earth. The language used by the Aeta humanizes the earth, just as Jemisin’s depiction of characters that utilize the earth for their powers and those that are formed from it, humanizes the earth. Both the history of the mountain as told by the Aeta elders and the beliefs held by the villagers living on the mountainside after the eruption lays blame with humans. No matter the cause, the effects of this eruption were very real.

The effects of Pinatubo continued to impact the people and environment in the  surrounding areas 25 years after the initial eruption. The Aeta people lived on the highlands of the island Luzon in the Philippines and approximately 20,000 of these Indigenous people were displaced during the evacuation process. During this horrible process, the Aeta people tried to hold onto their livelihood. Many chose to bring pets, while others arranged to be married to their partners prior to leaving behind what they knew as home. These people had been living on the slopes of Pinatubo for centuries and had grown their community to a population of 60,000 before the eruption.

Displacement refers to the forced moving of people from their home country because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. This being said, displacement is more complicated than just being physically removed from an area, especially when the Indigenous people relied on the vegetation surrounding the volcano to survive and build tradition with their youth. Because the state of their environment directly correlates to the state of their community, the Aeta people are still living in resettlement camps until they can return to their home. To this day, the fields encompassing Pinatubo are still unable to produce crops for the Aeta people and this also impacts the traditions that they have developed over the years. There are no means of farming left available for the Indigenous people to grow food and other materials necessary for survival, so harvesting traditions cannot be passed on to the younger generations when they come of age. Ecotourism efforts have attempted to restore some Indigenous practices, but this often leads to the shifting of focus onto satisfying foreign tourists instead of the well-being of the Aeta people, proving it ineffective for this community. Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education [inclusive of both staff and guests].”

Some of the people who once resided in the lowlands were able to return home, but doing so forced them to continue facing danger due to lahars burning settlements and covering rice paddies and sugar-cane fields. The eruption also had a multitude of financial consequences for the people of Pinatubo including $700 million in damage, $100 million of the damage cost being to the 16 aircraft flying over Pinatubo at the time of the eruption, and $250 million in property with the rest of damage costs from agriculture, forestry, and land destruction.

Art Emerging from Tragedy

Like with many tragedies that happen on Earth, whether natural or anthropogenic, humans tend to create art to memorialize these events. In Angeles, Pampanga, a museum has been created to teach and reflect on the volcanic eruption that occurred. It was opened to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pinatubo and highlight the events before, during, and after the eruption. There are many murals for visitors to view, not only showing the timeline but also the negative impacts of the ash that spewed from the volcano. One of the most stunning, nonetheless tragic, pieces of art is titled ‘Lumud” (Drown). Its creator, Arnel Garcia, depicts a Filipino family buried in ash with their personal belongings. Their faces, which are incredibly lifelike, depict a wide range of emotions. Some seem to be calm and accepting, while others seem to be scared and distraught. Garcia shows us that not all Filipinos reacted to the tragedy in the same way. Although this museum is very much a “chilling reminder” of the eruption, it has been very beneficial to the Filipino community. The tourism industry in and around Pinatubo has increased, as people have traveled to visit the museum and to see the aftermath. Along with the museum, tourists enjoy appreciating the lake, Lake Pinatubo, that was created due to the eruption. 

Lumud by Arnel Garcia

Following the eruption, in 1991 and the years that followed, the sunsets became extremely pigmented and breathtakingly beautiful. The colorful sunsets were produced by the sun’s rays cutting through the sulfuric acid cloud, altered by the thickest layers. People within the Philippines sat on the beaches to view and appreciate the beauty around them. The eruption caused hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which did create incredible sunsets, but also contributed to climate change. This cloud accelerated the destruction of the ozone layer and lowered temperatures on Earth.

Sunset from a beach in the Philippines

The Broken Earth of Pinatubo

When thinking about why this matters, it makes sense to reflect on Jemisin’s underlying motivations and why the messages threaded throughout The Broken Earth trilogy matter. We connect the ways in which the destruction of something, whether it be the environment or a societal system, is a tragic event; it is also an opportunity for change. It redirects a society towards new discoveries and a greater understanding of the world we inhabit. In other words, failing foundations need to break in order to catalyze the growth of a system. “And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two” (Jemisin). Furthering the idea that allows us to find hope within failure, destruction and change. Jemisin’s storyline reflects a foundation built on racial and ecological injustice, modeling a system with which we are all way too familiar. Our conversation is important because maybe some things break because there is a need for it to be rebuilt with a better understanding.

In regards to our seismic event, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, this applies to the way in which this event modified the way we approach and learn from volcanic hazards. It also alerts us as readers about the impacts of climate change and how necessary changes within society are, which connects to previous learning in this course, particularly our conversation with Dr. Reitz. If we do not begin to react to climate change now, we may end up relying on a poor solution in the future. Both the characters in the novels and us as humans have come to the conclusion that we are responsible for much of the destruction that happens around us. In local myth, the Mount Pinatubo eruption has been viewed as human-caused and allegedly occurred due to the exploitation of the surrounding area. Humans have also been found responsible for causing climate change: “The eruption helped scientists definitively declare that human emissions of greenhouse gasses are to blame for at least the past 60–70 years of warming” (Wendel & Kumar). Essentially, The Broken Earth trilogy ends within the realm of the same realization, who is at fault for all the turmoil: The humans who built the foundation in the first place. Even as old foundations crumble, we must remember them in order to build better ones in the future. As occurred in Jemisin’s novels, the loss of knowledge of what happened in Syl Anagist led the people of the Stillness to repeat the sins of their ancestors, in oppressing and enslaving a group of people, and led to their continual punishment at the hands of the Earth. We must always remember the cracks in the foundations we are rebuilding, so we’re sure we are making it better and stronger than before. As Jemisin questions throughout her trilogy, “How can we prepare for the future if we won’t acknowledge the past?”

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