Indonesia’s Mt. Agung continues to spew ash more than two miles into the sky, forcing thousands around the island of Bali to flee. Unfortunately, the amount of particles being emitted into the atmosphere has also shut down the local airport until at least Wednesday, trapping some 60,000 area residents and as many as 59,000 tourists.
At the moment, the eruption is relatively small, but it is hard to say whether it will stay that way. On Monday, the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority raised the alert to its highest level and announced a 6-mile radius evacuation zone. There is a strong chance that lava in the mountain’s crater will overflow, and observers have warned people in the area to watch out for mudflows of pyroclastic material and water coming down the mountain.
As the region has experienced hundreds of earthquakes since August, residents around Mt. Agung were not entirely unprepared. By last week, around 40,000 residents had already evacuated, but the vacations of thousands of tourists have been extended for a decidedly undesirable reason. They could be stuck in Bali for weeks.
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Some are making light of the situation in order to stay calm. Tech company CEO Michael Josh told NBC News, “Bali isn’t the worst place in the world to get stuck. It’s kind of an extended holiday for me.”
As an active volcano on the Ring of Fire, Mt. Agung has a long recorded history of eruptions stretching back to 1843. The last time the 10,000 foot mountain erupted was in 1963, and it caused the deaths of more than 1,100 people.
The future economy of Bali also stands to suffer a great deal if the eruption worsens, as it is a tourist hotspot that draws millions of visitors every year thanks to its unique Hindu culture, lush landscape, and serene beaches.
Some scientists have said that this eruption could have a temporary worldwide cooling impact on climate.
As Mt. Agung spits ash into the air, it is also emitting massive amounts of different gasses, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. If enough sulfur dioxide reaches the stratosphere (which is around 12 miles above the Earth this close to the equator), it has the potential to mix with water and freeze into droplets. These droplets can stay in the atmosphere for several years and block significant amounts of sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface, causing the global temperature to drop.
While not every volcanic eruption has a global cooling effect (including the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption in 1983), Mt. Agung caused a significant worldwide temperature drop back in 1963. Even so, everything, at least at this moment, remains uncertain.