Volcanic Evolution

By Jheri St. James

     The Philippine Islands were first visited by Europeans on Magellan’s expedition of 1521, and were later named in honor of Philip II of Spain. Perhaps the freshest soil in Common Ground 191’s collection comes from the Republic of the Philippines, thanks to Estrella F. Alabastro, Secretary in the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), who asked the scientists at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to make this collection. The beginning of the narrative written by these scientists sounds like a tongue-twister: “That soil was collected at the Pinatubo Volano in June of 2005. Pinatubo Volcano is an active hornblende andesite-dacite stratovolcano and dome complex in the island of Luzon, Philippines. It is the highest peak along the Pinatubo-Mariveles volcanic belt of 22 active volcanoes, currently one of six monitored by the PHIVOLCS, and stood 1745m above sea level prior to the 1991 eruption. After almost 400 years of quiescence, Pinatubo Volcano’s eruption on 15 June 1991 wrought havoc to thousands of communities lying on the slopes of the volcano, blanketing most of Southeast Asia with ash, and reducing its summit elevation by at least 300 meters. Considering that at least 1,000,000 people were threatened, accurate prediction and interpretation of observed events remarkably reduced the number of casualties to a few hundreds. Trace ash was found in Vietnam, Malaysia and Borneo. At least 5 cm or more thick of tephra-fall deposits covered a land area of approximately 4,000 km² surrounding the volcano, which buried crops and resulted in collapse of structures due to the sheer weight of the rain-saturated tephra. More than 300 people died during the eruption, most of them from collapsing roofs. Even years after the 1991 catastrophic eruption, several events still occurred due to secondary explosions and pyroclastic flows. The samples were taken from the Mactan area near Clark Air Base. Significant amounts of pumice and sand-sized fragments can be found in the sample.”

     Accurate characterization of the hazards and timely warnings of eruptions led to the evacuation of approximately 56,000 people—including 14,500 U.S. servicemen and their dependents from high-hazard areas days before the volcano’s climactic eruption. These warnings were based on the readings of seismometers on analog drum recorders. Despite advances in computer-based data acquisition, drum recorders are still needed for quick analysis by volcanologists of the current level of seismic activity at the volcano. (Photos courtesy of USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory)
     But disasters later become tourist sites. These days, Lonely writes, “Several travel agents in Los Angeles offer tours to Mt. Pinatubo, which left an amazing landscape. Walk among the ravines, drive up in a jeep or arrange a scenic flight.” Hiking trips are also offered to Mt. Mayon in southeast Luzon, once described as the world’s most perfect volcanic cone. This active volcano has erupted four times since 1968, most recently in June 2001. Mt. Taal, south of Manila, is described as one of the smallest and most dangerous volcanoes in the world, and the Philippines highest peak, Mt. Apo on Mindanao is another hiking and trekking destination.
“Explosive” and “change” are two apt words to describe the far-flung Philippines archipelago, located between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea, east of Vietnam. A small country slightly larger than Arizona, made up of 7,107 islands, it is favorably located in relation to many of Southeast Asia’s main waters: the South China Sea, Philippine Sea, Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea and Luzon Strait. These are the forgotten islands of Southeast Asia, ranging in size from the largest, Luzon, to tiny rocks and islets. Only 2,870 of the islands are named, about 730 are inhabited, and 11 account for most of the total land area and population. The landscape is characterized by coastal mangroves, fertile plains, luxuriant tropical jungles, rugged mountains, active volcanoes and hot springs.
     The Philippines have been plagued by a huge assortment of earthly troubles. In 2000, a Brussels-based research center declared the Philippines the most disaster-prone country on earth. It named typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, garbage landslides and military action against Muslim insurgents as just some of the problems with which both locals and tourists have had to deal. Because the islands are located in a typhoon belt, Filipinos can anticipate 15 cyclones per year, five to six striking some island; landslides, active volcanoes; destructive earthquakes; tsunamis. These are the kinds of cataclysmic activities that create new ground.
     However, in spite of this fresh new soil, it is the same old Common Ground 191 story in the Republic of the Philippines—the endless conflicts of man warring over real estate. The Philippine Islands became a Spanish colony during the 16th century and were ceded to the U.S. in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. In 1935 they became a self-governing commonwealth. In 1942, the islands fell under Japanese occupation during WWII, and U.S. forces and Filipinos fought together during 1944-45 to regain control. On July 4, 1946, the Philippines attained their independence from the U.S., subsequently celebrating their Independence Day from the U.S. on the same date as the U.S. celebrates its Independence Day from English rule.

     The murder of President Benigno Aquino and charges of fraud in the presidential elections of 1986 led to the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos. Corazon Aquino, wife of Benigno Aquino, claimed victory in the elections and accused Marcos forces of manipulating election returns. Weeks of political turmoil ensued. Finally the army took the side of Mrs. Aquino, and Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda fled the country, ending his 21 year rule. On July 2, 1990, Imelda Marcos was tried and acquitted by a New York City court of robbing the Philippine treasury during her husband’s presidency. In 1992, the U.S. closed its last military bases on the islands. Former Vice President to Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was elected to a six-year term in May 2004.

     That brief sketch barely tracks the explosive, seismic eruptions leading to each presidential change, many spearheaded by Cardinal Jaime Sin, the influential former head of the country’s Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Sin died on 21 June 2005. Powerful and poor alike filed past the open casket containing his body, while a large portrait hung overhead. Former President Corazon Aquino, who enjoyed the cardinal’s support during the popular uprising that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and brought her to power, attended the mass. Current President Arroyo paid tribute to the former church leader, describing him as a “blessed man who never failed to unite Filipinos during the most crucial battles against tyranny and evil.”

     A country’s culture both joins and separates it from other countries in the world. The culture of the Philippines bears this out. Its artists and handcrafters produce original, unusual works. From writers of everything from literature to folk tales, myths and legends, to film, painting, and photography, the Filopino people are very active creators. Many painters like Mideo M. Cruz, Andres Barrioquinto, Mario de Rivera, Brenda Fajardo and Karen Flores paint vividly colorful paintings, which support the gallery scene in the islands. The handicrafts of the Philippines are rich and varied, resulting in many bamboo and rattan furniture pieces, and macrame and capiz shell home accessories.

     Another art form is Inayan Eskrima martial arts, a form numbering as many styles as there are islands. Inayan Eskrima is a gathering of several different styles developed over time by the late Mlangisursuro Mike Inay. Eskrima literally means to skirmish or fight, using weapons including the open hand, blades, 18 to 26 inch sticks, knives, swords, staffs and spears, as well as boxing, kicking and wrestling and ground fighting.

     After describing the assorted types of conflicts of man, we gladly take note of the endless variations of Mother Nature’s beauty on our planet. Like the lands in all the countries in the Common Ground 191 journal, the Philippines boast tremendous earthly beauty. Described as the eighth wonder of the world, the rice terraces in Bantue, in north Luzon, were carved out of the hillside by Ifugao tribespeople (see picture at beginning) 2000 to 3000 years ago. These remarkable terraces stretch like stepping-stones to the sky—some reaching an altitude of 1500m (4920ft.).

     Other natural beauty exists in the famous white beaches of the island of Boracay, off the northwestern tip of Panay, which regularly appear in the “Best Beaches of the World” lists.

     Other spectacular sights include the strange Chocolate Hills of Bohol in the Visayas, the volcanic creater Lake Taal, southwest of Manila, the capital, and the burial caves of Sagada. And there are 5,000 other uninhabited islands to explore.

     Thank you, Estrella F. Alabastro for your participation (at the request of your daughter Edna de la Rosa) by asking the PHIVOLCS scientists who did the actual collection to add to our art project. A sad footnote to this journal entry is the recent loss of five PHIVOLCS scientists in a helicopter crash on April 28, 2005, while on aerial inspection of sites for relocation of people from the Philippines who lost their homes in a recent typhoon. Estrella writes, “All five victims were very much involved in the events prior to, during and after the Pinatubo eruption. Because of the dedication and competence of our people at PHIVOLCS, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was predicted in advance, enabling us to relocate communities (particularly the indigenous peoples) living close to the volcano. Even after the eruption PHIVOLCS continued to monitor and give valuable advice to government on the mitigation of rain-induced lahar flows to the plains of Central Luzon. For its work on Mt. Pinatubo PHIVOLCS has been given many awards, national and international.

     “ Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan, the head of PHIVOLCS until recently (he perished in the helicopter crash) was given the Sergey Soloviev medal by the European Geophysical Society in April 2003. This award is given to a scientist who has increased our knowledge of natural hazards, their basic principles as well as their proper assessment, in order to save lives and properties and protect the environment. The other scientists who died with Ray are: Dr. Norman Tungol, Dr. Jessie Daligdig, Mr. Dindo Javier, Mr. Orlando Abengoza.”

     The Filipino survivors in this dramatic, disastrous and volcanic archipelago are courageous and fierce, stoic and artistic. They are also colorful and friendly, driving their Jeepneys around Manila. They live on fresh, new common ground and we welcome their deeply meaningful story and soil to Common Ground 191. We will add the soil of the Philippines in reverence as a memorial to those who perished, having saved so many lives.









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