Papua New Guinea volcano eruption eases, although thick ash rises 3 miles into the sky

A cloud of volcanic ash and steam rises during the eruption of Mount Ulawun, seen from 30,000 feet above sea level, April 30, 2001. Authorities have lowered the alert level for Papua’s highest volcano -New Guinea on Tuesday, November 21, 2023, and ruled out a tsunami a day after it erupted, spewing smoke up to 15,000 meters (50,000 feet). Credit: Klaus Wermuth/AAPImage via AP

The eruption of Papua New Guinea’s highest volcano subsided on Tuesday, but thick ash still billowed into the sky and covered nearby rooftops and palm trees.

One of the South Pacific country’s most active volcanoes, Mount Ulawun erupted Monday afternoon, spewing ash up to 15 kilometers (50,000 feet).

The alert level of the volcano on the northeastern island of New Britain has been lowered by the Papua New Guinea Geohazards Management Division to stage 3, meaning a moderate to strong eruption. It was stage 4 on Monday, indicating a very strong rash.

But the volcano, which rises 2,334 meters (7,657 feet) above sea level, remained active and the eruption could continue indefinitely, the division said.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in Darwin, Australia, reported Monday that volcanic smoke was rising up to 15,000 meters (50,000 feet).

The Papua New Guinea division reported Tuesday that the ash plume rose at least 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) before disappearing into atmospheric clouds.

Small volcanic particles in ash plumes can be carried long distances by wind and threaten aviation. A thick plume extended dozens of kilometers northwest of Mount Ulawun on Tuesday.

Papua New Guinea’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority did not immediately respond to an email asking whether air travel was affected. Tracking site FlightAware on Tuesday showed normal activity at the nearest major airports, in Port Moresby, the national capital, and Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.

The nearest major town is Bialla, located among palm oil plantations on the slopes of Ulawun, 47 kilometers to the southwest, the division said. Hargy Oil Palm Ltd., a Bialla-based company, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The division said thick layers of black ash were dropping leaves in oil palm plantations near the volcano and piling up on roofs.

Bialla has more than 13,000 inhabitants, according to the World Bank.

The eruption had prompted Japan to assess the risk of a possible tsunami on Monday, but none occurred and the Papua New Guinea division declared the threat “zero”.

Papua New Guinea is located on the “Ring of Fire”, the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean, where much of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic activity occur. Ulawun has erupted several times since the 1700s, and its last major eruption in 2019 resulted in the evacuation of more than 5,000 people.

The division said there have been no known casualties in Ulawun’s history of eruptions.

But major impacts in terms of population displacement, damage to infrastructure and disruption of services are common, the division said.

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