'Detonations like heavy artillery': A look back at Taal Volcano’s past eruptions

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 20 2020 06:07 PM | Updated as of Jan 20 2020 11:15 PM

Photo courtesy of Phivolcs

Since Taal Volcano's reawakening last week, there has been renewed interest in its past eruptions. Circulating on social media is the documentary on its 1965 eruption and some passages from the book "The Mysteries of Taal" by Thomas Hargrove, which was published just months after the devastating 1991 Pinatubo eruption.

Both the documentary and the book tell the story of how southern Luzon’s popular tourist spot was once a site of death and destruction.

Materials from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), Hargrove’s book and a 2019 journal article “A synthesis and review of historical eruptions at Taal Volcano, Southern Luzon, Philippines” by Perla J. Delos Reyes, Ma. Antonia V. Bornas, Dale Dominey-Howes, Abigail C. Pidlaoan , Christina R. Magilld, and Renato U. Solidum, Jr. show the history of Taal's eruptions. Solidum is currently the director of Phivolcs while Bornas is the head of the agency’s Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division.

Residents evacuating during one of Taal Volcano’s most devastating eruptions (1965). From Mr. & Ms. Collection, American Historical Collection, Rizal Library

Based on the said research paper, there are 33 known eruptions of Taal, not including the current one. 

1572

The first recorded eruption of Taal Volcano was in 1572, based on chronicles of Augustinian friars who were living in the original town of Taal, Batangas. One priest described the 1572 eruption as having the “volcano of fire” spitting out “very large”, “glowing” rocks that destroyed the crops. The journal article said one priest decided to hold Mass to calm the fears of the people. 

During this time, Taal Lake (then known as Bonbon Lake) was still connected to the sea as an inlet of Balayan Bay but this passage was later closed after a series of eruptions.

1641

While the research paper authors suggested the downgrading of the 1641 eruption since it is considered a “small to moderate phreatic eruption,” one interesting information included in the accounts are the opening up of two craters - one yellow or described as “with sulfur in it” and the other “with green water in it which was instantly boiling.”

“A synthesis and review of historical eruptions at Taal Volcano, Southern Luzon, Philippines” published in Earth-Science Reviews (2019)

1716

Accounts cited in the paper describe the explosions from the volcano as a “great number of detonations heard in the air,” the ash columns “looking like tower,” and the lake “black as ink.” The journal paper said pyroclastic flows, base surges and volcanic tsunami could have caused the phenomena. The stench of sulfur was strong and the eruption resulted in fish kill although the "eruptive materials" did not reach the lakeshore communities. The eruptions reportedly stopped on the fifth day and was followed by strong rains. 

1731

Priests described the 1731 eruption as sounding like a “continuous fire of heavy artillery.” They also noted that a new island appeared. The island later subsided and its remnants became known as Bubuin and Napayun (now called Laurel) islands. The “terrible phenomenon” reportedly lasted for several days, accompanied by earthquakes and a “frightful” “massive tephra (ash) column” that hovered over Taal.

“A synthesis and review of historical eruptions at Taal Volcano, Southern Luzon, Philippines” published in Earth-Science Reviews (2019)

1749

The destructive eruption of Taal Volcano in 1749 lasted for three months. Historical accounts said besides an “immense column of smoke” from the summit of the volcano island, there were “smaller whiffs,” which the journal authors interpreted as minor active vents. It was during this time that fissures were observed, opening in the ground “amid horrifying roars” and reaching as far as Calamba, Laguna.

There were also stories about the town of Sala (now part of Talisay) and parts of Talisay being “practically uninhabitable” with fissures, “extensive (land) subsidences” and water springs drying up and appearing elsewhere. While the eruption was considered violent, there were no fatalities, although towns were severely damaged and abandoned, with some like Sala and Old Tanauan merging.

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1754

Often mentioned by Bornas during Phivolcs press briefings, the 1754 eruption is notorious for being the most prolonged - at 7 months, starting in May. Bornas said many communities were devastated, resulting in many people abandoning towns. 

One account from a priest went as follows: "The volcano quite unexpectedly commenced to roar and emit, sky-high, formidable flames intermixed with glowing rocks which, falling back upon the island and rolling down the slopes of the mountain, created the impression of a large river of fire.”

Pyroclastic flows and base surges, destroyed the lakeshore community of Bayuyungan. 

From June to September, the volcano “never ceased to eject fire and mud,” alongside ash columns, thunder and lightning. There was a “lull” in the eruptive activity from September 26 to November 1 after which the volcano “resumed its former fury, ejecting fire, rocks, sand, and mud.” The priest said the volcano also “vomited enormous boulders which rolling down the slopes of the island, fell into the lake and caused huge waves (interpreted by the researchers as volcanic tsunami).

An account cited by Hargrove in his book claimed that the “lake water threw up dead alligators and fish, including sharks.

Finally, on November 28, ash columns “ascended higher than ever before” “accompanied by terrific lightning and thunder above, and violent shocks of earthquake underneath.” Volcanic tsunamis flooded lakeshore houses and on November 29, houses collapsed from the weight of ash, mud and water.

It is unclear how many died because of the eruption (except the 12 officially recorded) but the old towns of Taal, Lipa, Tanauan and Sala were deserted and relocated, according to the journal paper. Bornas said that for a time, population in the province of Batangas (then called Balayan) dropped to 3,000. In his book, Hargrove discussed in detail the movement of the towns due to the volcanic eruptions. As a scuba diver, he described diving ruins under Taal Lake, which he believed were evidence of the five towns that existed along the lakeshore before the devastating 1754 eruption. He also wrote about how the 1754 eruption closed Taal Lake’s channel to the sea, eventually affecting its marine life that relied on saltwater.

1911

This is considered the last “large-scale eruptive event” of Taal Volcano. It started with volcanic earthquakes on January 27 at 11 p.m., which were felt as far as Metro Manila. The next day, there were already huge dark ash plumes accompanied by lightning. It was on January 29 that fissures appeared in Lemery, Taal and Talisay while a black ash column caused ash fall in Cavite. The next day, a large-magnitude earthquake occurred alongside an “enormous” ash column, according to the journal paper of Delos Reyes and Bornas. 

Muddy rain caused by the ash fall was experienced in Tanauan and a black cloud that “spread out at the top like an umbrella, or a giant cauliflower” appeared, causing total darkness, which people thought was an incoming thunderstorm. More intense lightning was observed as “balls of fire” were ejected from the volcanic crater.

There were also shock waves or blasts of changing atmospheric pressure in Talisay and San Nicolas, which were felt like a strong wind coming from the volcano.

The journal paper said base surges or blasts of volcanic debris, ash and hot gas “mowed down and destroyed whatever it encountered in its path on the entire island and on neighboring western shores of Lake Bonbon (now Taal Lake). Trees were shredded and broken and house roofing were detached. Toxic gases from the volcano also reportedly affected vegetation and people through acid burns and even death.

“In a house of a village belonging to the municipality of Talisay, at a distance of over 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the volcano, the inhabitants covered themselves with mats to escape the mud; but when the worst of the eruption was already over, there occurred an explosion in the kitchen which hurled the sheets of iron roofing to a distance of more than 18 meters (20 yards),” one account said. The journal paper authors said it indicated that gas was released during the eruption.

In addition to the gases and base surges caused by the eruption, there were also volcanic tsunamis (as high as three meters) that killed people and animals and destroyed villages in the western shore of the lake. 

After the eruption, Taal Volcano Island subsided or dropped by three meters while the water in the lake was lowered by one meter. Before the eruption, Taal Main’s crater had three small lakes inside it because of smaller craters. After it erupted, the lakes “fused into one.”

A total of 1,335 people died, with most victims coming from the volcano island. 

Eruption of Taal Volcano in September 1965. Photo from Phivolcs

1965

The 1965 eruption happened in Mt. Tabaro, an active crater on the west side of the volcano island, 54 years since its last eruption in 1911.

“With a 54-year repose period since AD1911, people had forgotten the devastating effects and again returned to Taal Volcano island,” the journal paper said.

A year before the major eruption, an increase in lake temperature at the main crater was monitored. On September 28, 1965 at 2 a.m., lava fountaining and lava flows were observed, making the volcano look like an “enormous Roman candle.” 

Accompanied with large-magnitude volcanic earthquakes, residents started evacuating the volcano island. As explosive eruptions happened, lightning and pyroclastic flows were observed. Besides the flow of hot gas, ash and volcanic debris, base surges were also experienced after an ash column collapsed. 

One account described it as a "flat turbulent cloud (that) spread out, radially transporting ejected material with hurricane velocity." This happened three to five times, devastating the southern part of the volcano island and even reaching the lakeshore villages. There were also tsunamis and shock waves observed, similar to what happened in 1911. Some evacuating islanders were killed by the 4.7-meter high waves. At least 200 people died.

The cinder cone on the crater created by the phreatomagmatic eruption of Taal volcano in 1965. The crater was eventually filled by the lava flows from the eruptions of 1968 and 1969. Photo from JG Moore, US Geological Survey

OTHER ERUPTIONS

There were smaller eruptions from 1966 to 1977 but these were mostly minor eruptions centered at Mt. Tabaro crater. 

Of all the major eruptions, Phivolcs considers a similar situation to that of 1754 and 1911 as worst-case scenarios. Experts are most concerned about the possibility of a base surge, which is deadly and inescapable.

Below is a timeline of all the recorded eruptions of Taal Volcano based on Phivolcs data.