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Danger zone. View of the approach the group took to Semeru's crater.

Volcanologists Killed in Blast

By: 
Richard A. Kerr
2000-08-17 17:00

An excursion to an active Indonesian volcano turned deadly last month after a group ignored basic safety guidelines. On 27 July a party of seven scientists taking in the sights of Semeru, Java's tallest volcano, went within meters of the crater rim. Just then, the mountain let loose one of more than 500 explosions recorded that week. Flying rocks killed two researchers from the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia and injured four foreign visitors, one seriously.

Despite the danger of their profession, volcanologists have no mandatory, internationally agreed-upon safety precautions. Three incidents in the early 1990s, in which 12 volcanologists died, brought the issue to the fore (Science, 16 April 1993, p. 289). In 1994, a committee of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI) urged, among other advice, that meeting-related fieldtrips not visit hazardous areas, that active craters be approached only when absolutely essential, and that everyone wear hardhats and protective clothing.

The fateful visit to Semeru ran counter to most of these guidelines. It was a group visit following an IAVCEI meeting in Bali, although it was not officially sponsored; the volcanologists weren't doing science, only satisfying a "curiosity to observe volcanic events," says Lee Siebert of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who suffered a blow to the head at Semeru. Moreover, no one was wearing a hard hat, because the decision to approach the active crater only "evolved" after a 2-day climb to the summit, Siebert says.

Other volcanologists understand what lured the group so close to Semeru. "They're volcanologists," says Edward Venzke of the Smithsonian, who watched from a safe distance as Semeru erupted every 5 to 30 minutes during a pre-meeting fieldtrip. "It's valuable for us to see things up close sometimes, to get some firsthand experience."

Related sites
Safety recommendations for volcanologists and the public
International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior
Volcanological Survey of Indonesia

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