Ontake Volcanic Eruption (Japan): Early Warning Systems Good Enough?

On Saturday, September 26, 2014 Mount Ontake – 200km west of Tokyo – suddenly erupted, spewing ash and rock over a wide area and killing nearly 50 people (at last count). What’s strange is that this volcanic eruption occurred with no warning – at least that’s what the specialists are saying at this stage. I’m not so sure that’s true.

It’s always been said that Japan has one of the best early warning / monitoring systems in the world due to its location on the Pacific Rim of Fire. If the best monitoring system in the world didn’t catch this, then is the best system even worth it? I mean, these systems are developed to help save lives and provide early warnings to evacuate people and ensure life safety. Yet, that didn’t happen so are the monitoring systems we have in place any good? Are they providing any help at all? 

What do we need to do to get to a point that can predict – with sufficient notification – that something is (or could be) imminent? A few seconds won’t cut it and isn’t enough to allow for any communications or sufficient response – unless you’re a race car driver. Should we educate people instead to understand the risks of where they are – like climbing the side of a volcano, which makes up for the vast majority of those that died on Mount Ontake – or do we put trust in systems that can’t predict or measure potential dangers?

And don’t forget, even if monitoring systems do provide enough early warning of potential earthquakes or eruptions, there is time taken away by officials to review the data before they determine what course of action should be taken. Now the time to respond is reduced even more and the disaster is closer.

If everything is monitored correctly and the communicated quickly, do we even care about the risk of occurrence? I mean, more people can die in a car accident that an airplane crash yet our highways are more crowded than ever. Seems like we’re OK with the risk. With earthquakes and eruptions, there’s nothing we can do anyway if they occur without warning and if we do have sufficient warning, many are reluctant to leave anyway. We do see evacuations in some areas but then these have to be forced by officials – usually with military intervention to help get people away from the danger zone; people don’t seem to go willingly.

So are these early warning systems any good? Are they yet in a position to provide enough warning to save lives, or are they only good enough to allow scientists to learn about these potential disasters? Quite possibly, the monitoring of these systems haven’t progressed to a mature enough state to be able to capture early warning signals, like something that can give an indication day or weeks in advance. Just those ever so slight, minute, tiny indicators that can let scientists know well in advance something may occur. Sure, they already have some of this but then when we hear/see something, there’s smoke billowing out of the volcano. It’s kind of like the saying, ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’. Well, maybe we can learn this earlier before any of the smoke and ash appear to make these systems worthwhile.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered communication with climbers be improved, as they make up the casualties, and improvements be made to the monitoring systems. That must say that the best is not the best and not effective enough to be of help.

There is so much we don’t know about the earth and how it works, so we’ve got some work ahead of us but if we can get the early warning indicators correct, maybe we can save lives by understanding how the world behaves.


© StoneRoad 2015

A.Alex Fullick has over 18 years’ experience working in Business Continuity and is the author of numerous books, including “Heads in the Sand” and “BIA: Building the Foundation for a Strong Business Continuity Program.”


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