The world’s largest volcanic eruption to happen in the past 100 years was the June 15, 1991, eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
Bursts of gas-charged magma exploded into umbrella ash clouds, hot flows of gas and ash descended the volcano’s flanks and lahars swept down valleys. The collaborative work of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) saved more than 5,000 lives and $250 million in property by forecasting Pinatubo's 1991 climactic eruption in time to evacuate local residents and the U.S. Clark Air Force Base that happened to be situated only 9 miles from the volcano.
U.S. and Filipino scientists worked with U.S. military commanders and Filipino public officials to put evacuation plans in place and carry them out 48 hours before the catastrophic eruption. As in 1991 at Pinatubo, today the USGS is supported by The US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance to provide scientific assistance to countries around the world though VDAP, the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. The program and its partners respond to volcanic unrest, build monitoring infrastructure, assess hazards and vulnerability, and improve understanding of eruptive processes and forecasting to prevent natural hazards, such as volcanic eruptions, from becoming human tragedies.
At Pinatubo, the volcanic unrest began April 2, 1991, with a series of small steam explosions. In Manila, Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan, Director of PHIVOLCS, dispatched a team to investigate a fissure that opened on the north side of the volcano and was emitting steam and sulfur fumes. PHIVOLCS set up a seismograph and began monitoring earthquakes. Dr. Punongbayan also called his friend, Dr. Chris Newhall, at the USGS. The two scientists began working on how to get the USGS-USAID Volcano Disaster Assistance Program team to the Philippines to help monitor Pinatubo.
Three weeks later, Newhall, along with VDAP volcanologists Andy Lockhart, John Power, John Ewert, Rick Hoblitt and Dave Harlow, began unpacking 35 trunks of gear at temporary quarters on Clark Air Base. The seismic drum room was a maze of wires and cables; the daily drum roll of seismicity posted on the walls. Instrumentation was drawn principally from a permanent supply of specialized equipment kept ready for volcano crises under the auspices of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program and the joint USGS-USAID VDAP. They nicknamed the place PVO—the Pinatubo Volcano Observatory.
With air assistance from the U.S. military, the PHIVOLCS-VDAP team installed seven telemetered seismic sites, two telemetered tiltmeters to measure ground deformation, and used a COSPEC (correlation spectrometry) instrument to measure sulfur dioxide gases that would presage arrival of new magma deep in the volcano’s plumbing. All efforts were focused on answering the questions — will Pinatubo erupt catastrophically, and when?
Volcanologists are first to admit that forecasting what a volcano will do next is a challenge. In late May, the number of seismic events under the volcano fluctuated from day-to-day. Trends in rate and character of seismicity, earthquake hypocenter locations, or other measured parameters were not conclusive in forecasting an eruption. A software program called RSAM (real-time seismic amplitude measurement), developed in 1985 to keep an eye on Mount St. Helens, helped scientists analyze seismic data to estimate the pent-up energy within Pinatubo that might indicate an imminent eruption.
There was no existing volcanic hazards map of the Pinatubo volcano, so one was quickly compiled by the PHIVOLCS-VDAP team to show areas most susceptible to ashflows, mudflows and ashfall. The map was based on the maximum known extent of each type of deposit from past eruptions and was intended to be a worst-case scenario. The map proved to forecast closely the areas that would be devastated on June 15.
Evacuation: 48 hours before the first ash eruption
The Clark Air Base sprawled over nearly 10,000 acres with its western end nestled in the lush, gently rolling foothills of the Zambales Mountains–only 9 miles (14 km) east of Mount Pinatubo. Military housing was located on the “Hill” closest to the volcano, with nearly 2,000 homes, elementary schools, a middle school, a new high school, a convenience store and restaurant. At the time, the population of Clark and nearby cities of Angeles, Sapangbato, Dau and Mabalacat numbered about 250,000. The PHIVOLCS-VDAP team developed an alert system and distributed it to civil defense and local officials as a simple means to communicate changing volcanic risk.
Senior base officials listened to daily briefings and put together plans to evacuate. Everyone agreed that if there were an evacuation, people must be moved to an area where they would be safe—not statistically safe, but perfectly safe. The location chosen was 25 miles (40 km) away at Naval Station Subic Bay and Naval Air Station Cubi Point.
Beginning June 6, a swarm of progressively shallower volcano-tectonic earthquakes accompanied by inflationary tilt (the “puffing up” of the volcano) on the upper east flank of the mountain, culminated in the extrusion of a small lava dome, and continuous low-level ash emission. Early June 10, in the face of a growing dome, increasing ash emission and worrisome seismicity, 15,000 nonessential personnel and dependents were evacuated by road from Clark to Subic Bay. By then, almost all aircraft had been removed from Clark and local residents had evacuated. The USGS and PHIVOLCS scientists did their own “bugout,” moving the monitoring observatory to an alternate command post located just inside the base perimeter near the Dau gate, an additional five miles (8 km) away from the volcano.
Eruption: June 15, 1991
When even more highly gas-charged magma reached Pinatubo's surface June 15, the volcano exploded. The ash cloud rose 28 miles (40 km) into the air. Volcanic ash and pumice blanketed the countryside. Huge avalanches of searing hot ash, gas and pumice fragments, called pyroclastic flows, roared down the flanks of Pinatubo, filling once-deep valleys with fresh volcanic deposits as much as 660 feet (200 meters) thick. The eruption removed so much magma and rock from beneath the volcano that the summit collapsed to form a small caldera 1.6 miles (2.5 km) across.
If the huge volcanic eruption were not enough, Typhoon Yunya moved ashore at the same time with rain and high winds. The effect was to bring ashfall to not only those areas that expected it, but also many areas (including Manila and Subic Bay) that did not. Fine ash fell as far away as the Indian Ocean, and satellites tracked the ash cloud as it traveled several times around the globe. At least 17 commercial jets inadvertently flew through the drifting ash cloud, sustaining about $100 million in damage.
With the ashfall came darkness and the sounds of lahars rumbling down the rivers. Several smaller lahars washed through Clark, flowing across the base in enormously powerful sheets, slamming into buildings and scattering cars as if they were toys. Nearly every bridge within 18 miles (30 km) of Mount Pinatubo was destroyed. Several lowland towns were flooded or partially buried in mud.
The volcanologists at the Dau command post watched monitoring stations on Pinatubo fail, destroyed by the eruption. They watched telemetry go down but then come back up – a sign that a pyroclastic flow was headed down valley and temporarily interfering with the radio links. They moved to the back of a cinderblock structure to maybe provide a little more protection from hot gas and ash; there was nowhere else for them to go. Fortunately, the flow stopped before it reached the building.
Aftermath: Adapting and learning
The post-eruption landscape at Pinatubo was disorienting; familiar but at the same time, totally different. Acacia trees lay in gray heaps, trees and shrubs were covered in ash. Roofs collapsed from the tremendous stresses of wet ash and continuing earthquakes. No matter which way one turned, everything looked the same shade of gray.
Most of the deaths (more than 840 people) and injuries from the eruption were from the collapse of roofs under wet heavy ash. Many of these roof failures would not have occurred if there had been no typhoon. Rain continued to create hazards over the next several years, as the volcanic deposits were remobilized into secondary mudflows. Damage to bridges, irrigation-canal systems, roads, cropland and urban areas occurred in the wake of each significant rainfall. Many more people were affected for much longer by rain-induced lahars than by the eruption itself.
By the end of 1991, and into 1992, more than 23 USGS geologists, seismologists, hydrologists, and electronics and computer specialists had each spent between three and eight weeks at Pinatubo and helped PHIVOLCS advise community and national leaders and those at-risk and studying the volcano to better understand what causes giant eruptions and how to forecast them, whether in the U.S. or abroad.
Much weaker but still spectacular eruptions of ash occurred occasionally through early September 1991. From July to October 1992, a lava dome grew in the new caldera as fresh magma rose from deep beneath Pinatubo. For now, the volcano is quiet, and the U.S. transferred Clark Air Force Base to the Philippine government in November 1991. The base has been repurposed as a trade and commercial center with large airport.
What would be different if the situation occurred today? Consider that in 1991 there was no easy access to the internet, no connections to other data sets or scientists other than by telephone. The first popular web browser was a couple of years off, CD writers cost around $10,000, and scientific data and analysis were shared mainly by fax. The Pinatubo Volcano Observatory in 1991 was a self-contained unit; data from the monitoring network were radioed to it and the analysis was done by scientists on-site. Today, data received at PVO would be forwarded to colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere for more sophisticated analysis with the results quickly transmitted back to PVO. Satellite data measuring ground temperatures, gas emissions, and inflation or deflation of the volcano would be sent to PVO where it would be integrated with other data sources to develop forecasts and inform hazard mitigation efforts. Tools and expertise would no longer be confined to what was physically at the observatory, but instead a global support group would be available to aid the response. Monitoring instruments have also improved greatly in performance while at the same time dropping in price and power consumption. There is no doubt that with the communication and monitoring tools available to us today, we would learn much more about the buildup to the eruptions and have more and better data to guide our decision-making.
For successful natural hazard mitigation, it all comes down to the right combination of monitoring data and scientific skill, and then just as important, scientists and public officials who are effective at communicating with each other and with the public who may be in harm's way. At Pinatubo, the quick deployment of monitoring instruments and preparation of a volcanic hazards map by the PHIVOLCS and VDAP team helped to better understand the precursors of volcanic activity and provided the basis for accurate warnings of impending eruptions. The willingness of base commanders, public officials and citizens to take the necessary precautions lessened the risk from this catastrophic eruption. (US Geological Survey)
 Photo from the US Navy archives (left) shows the Binictican housing area in the former Subic Naval Base covered in volcanic ash and sand after the June 15, 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. The Pinatubo eruption and the rejection by the Philippine Senate of a new bases treaty with the United States led to the withdrawal of US military forces and the subsequent establishment of the Subic Bay Freeport. (AMD/MPD-SBMA)
 Photo from the US Navy archives (top) shows the San Roqué chapel in the former Subic Naval Base still covered in volcanic ash and fallen debris after the June 15, 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. The volcanic eruption and the rejection by the Philippine Senate of a new bases treaty with the United States led to the withdrawal of US military forces and the subsequent establishment of the Subic Bay Freeport. (AMD/MPD-SBMA)
 The eruption of Mount Pinatubo sent lahars and pyroclastic flows down the mountain, wiping out bridges and other infrastructure downstream.