Volcanoes are extraordinary natural disasters! Due to their massive force and release of energy, however, they can be dangerous and possibly catastrophic—not just regionally, but worldwide!
Did you know that there are roughly 500 million people living in areas at risk from volcanic eruptions? About 90% of them live near the Ring of Fire where 75% of the Earth’s 850 active volcanoes are found. That’s a mouthful, huh!
It’s important to know what you’re up against if you live close to a volcano.
How do you prepare for a volcanic eruption?
In order to prepare for a volcanic eruption, you should know what your community’s hazard is. This will help you determine which other disaster risks are present in your region. After you’ve determined that, you should prepare an emergency action and evacuation plan which includes a family communication and reunification strategy. Then, put together an emergency kit that includes all the necessary supplies to survive the aftermath of the disaster, whether that’s by evacuating or sheltering in place. Finally, sign up for alerts through the NOAA Weather App and USGS Volcano Notification Service. In this article, we break down the entire volcano preparedness process so that by the end you can feel empowered to put your emergency plan into action!
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for a volcanic eruption, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here. Don’t forget to grab your free printable checklist at the end of this guide!]
- Throughout the world, there are approximately 20 volcanoes actively erupting at any given time.
- Many scientists believe that 80% of the Earth’s volcanic eruptions actually take place underwater (in the ocean). If strong enough, underwater volcanoes can cause tsunamis.
- The deadliest and biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history was the eruption of Mt.Tambora which occurred on April 10, 1818, in Indonesia. It killed more than 120,000 people and spewed volcanic ash more than 25 miles into the air.
- The most destructive volcano in US history was the eruption of Mt. St. Helens that occurred on May 18, 1980, in Washington.
- The world’s most active volcano is Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea volcano.
- The world’s largest volcano (and also one of the most active) is Hawaii’s Manua Loa.
- The costliest volcanic eruption in the world, according to the International Disaster Database, was the eruption of Nevada Del Ruiz in Colombia. The economic impact was approximately 1 Billion Dollars.
- There are only 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth. These volcanoes have the potential to cause extreme destruction, not just to the nearby areas, but to the world’s ecology and climate. Luckily, these types of volcanoes are estimated to erupt once every 100,000 years so we may not live to see one erupt. Or if we do, we might not survive it…
Volcano terms you should know
Cinder/ Scoria Cone Volcanoes: These are the most common and smallest type of volcanoes. Paricutin and Cerro Negro are cinder cones.
Shield Volcanoes: Shield volcanoes typically cause the rapid flow of liquid lava. Manua Loa and Mount Kilauea are a shield volcano.
Composite Volcanoes/ Stratovolcanoes: These types of volcanoes are considered the most destructive and dangerous due to their explosive nature. The volcano is formed by underground ducts and channels of ash, lava, and melted snow. At the time of an explosion, any of the side ducts can act as a point of release as well as the main cone at the summit. Stratovolcanoes behave a lot like a bottle of soda that has been vigorously shaken up right before opening it. Mount St. Helens and Mount Fiji are stratovolcanoes.
Caldera: A caldera is a depression that forms at the center of a volcano after a significant eruption has occurred. When the mouth of the volcano finishes erupting, it collapses slowly into itself and forms a caldera. A famous caldera is Yellowstone.
Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI): Volcanoes are measured with the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The VEI is a scale that estimates what the force of a volcano’s eruption is based on the height of the cloud produced upon eruption, how long the eruption lasts, and how much ash is produced. Scientists use historical data, science, archeological evidence, and/or qualitative observations to examine this information. The scale goes from 0 (non-explosive eruptions) to 8 (supervolcanoes). The last known VEI-8 volcano happened around 26,500 years ago in New Zealand. For more information on the scale of eruptions and their rate of occurrence, check out this PDF that the USGS put together.
Volcano advisory: The USGS issues volcano advisories when a specific volcano is showing new signs of activity, abnormal to what has been recorded.
Volcano watch: A volcano watch is a step up from an advisory. A watch is issued when the underground volcanic activity that is recorded is changing and increasing. There is the possibility of an eruption but the hazards it poses are limited. Under a watch alert, you should begin preparing for the possibility that you may have to evacuate or shelter in place. Stay tuned to the local radio station and the NOAA Weather updates for more information.
Volcano warning: A volcano warning is a step up from a watch. A warning is issued when a major eruption is hazardous and highly suspected to occur. Prepare to evacuate if told to do so. Stay tuned to the NOAA Weather Radio and your local radio for updated information.
Current volcanic eruptions
The United States Geological Survey has a US map on their website that shows all the volcanoes and their current alerts. The map allows you to zoom in to any section and get detailed information about the volcano of your choice.
The Smithsonian Institute has a really cool page where they mention all the eruptions happening right now throughout the world. If you go to their Current Eruptions page, you can click specifically on the volcano name (to the left, highlighted in orange) and get more information about that specific volcano, including the latest reports, photos, the location on a map, and a lot more.
What to expect during a volcanic eruption
Where do volcanic eruptions occur?
Volcanoes occur in several different places, such as in the places where tectonic plates meet. The majority of volcanos are found in the Pacific Ocean, in a section that is popularly known as the “Ring of Fire”. Approximately 80% of volcanoes are found underwater.
What are the warning signs of a volcano?
What are the impacts of volcanic eruptions?
Volcanic eruptions can cause major damage to a region — or the world if it’s large enough.
Structural damage: Volcanos can cover or destroy anything along their path. Some types of volcanoes spew out ashes and others release hot lava which becomes as hard as a rock once it dries. Entire communities can become buried in ash or lava. Structures can also become damaged or destroyed due to the effect of the volcano, not the volcanic matter itself. For example, homes or buildings may become flooded due to lahars or tsunamis. Expect power outages in volcano-affected areas.
Environmental: Volcanic eruptions can cause a remarkable impact on our climate. Volcanoes release toxic gas clouds into the environment that pollute the air and have the potential to cause a large number of fatalities, especially from a lack of oxygen due to the massive release of carbon dioxide. The air becomes altered after an eruption, causing less visibility and subsequently little to no sun covering for significant periods of time (of course this can depend on the type of volcano). The combination of toxic gases and low visibility poses a problem to vegetation and the production of food, which can contribute to famine. Volcanic eruptions can cause widespread water contamination which not only ruins ecosystems and crops but also can result in disease. Ash in the air also disrupts aviation travel, which is not just responsible for the transportation of passengers but also commercial products. In many ways, an eruption can cause the deterioration of the local or global climate.
Natural disasters: Volcanos can also trigger several types of natural disasters. Some of these include:
- Lahars: These fatal mudslides, otherwise known as debris avalanches, are caused by volcanoes. The natural release of a volcano causes extremely hot/toxic gases and solid materials to flow down the face of the volcano at rapid speeds. Plus, if the volcano was covered in snow, the snow melts on impact and creates raging rivers of flowing debris.
- Floods: Depending on the topography of a region, volcanoes can cause flooding. Sometimes it’s due to the melting snow or ice, but it could also be due to overflowing rivers.
- Earthquakes: Earthquakes are common before volcanic eruptions because the tectonic plates are adjusting themselves to the pressure that is building up below.
- Tsunamis: Large volcanoes that are located underwater or very close to the ocean can cause a tsunami.
- Lightning: It’s common to experience a lightning show during a volcanic eruption. This happens when hot ash and other volcanic materials come into contact with clouds and the air.
- Wildfires: Lava is unbelievably hot and can easily catch trees and infrastructure on fire upon contact. Lightning strikes produced during the eruption can do the same thing.
What is the role of government in a volcanic eruption?
The United States Geological Survey (USGS), is the organization that monitors volcanic activity. Some of their responsibilities include assessing the hazards, monitoring active volcanoes, and determining which locations are at risk in order to provide warnings to the public. The USGS also runs the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) which provides worldwide relief after volcanic disasters.
Mitigation of volcanic eruptions
Like most other natural disasters, volcanoes cannot be contained and the risk of an eruption cannot be reduced nor prevented. Volcanoes are extremely powerful and can become significantly destructive. Preparedness is key to mitigating the possibility of losses and beginning the rebuilding phase of your life. The following mitigation tips should help you prepare for a volcanic eruption.
- Know your risk. Knowing if your home is in a volcano hazard zone should be the first step in your preparedness process. You can look at the USGS volcano map for more information on volcano risks specific to the United States. Also, note the indirect effects that volcanoes may pose to your community and prepare for those. As before-mentioned, these include lahars, earthquakes, wildfires, water contamination, and power outages, to name a few.
- Prepare an emergency action and evacuation plan. Always include all the members of your household in this process. For an efficient evacuation to happen, it’s important to include the entire family, especially if you have young children, elderly or disabled persons, and pets living with you. Your emergency action plan should include a list of “to-do’s” when you receive an alert. For instance, under a volcano watch, you may not need to evacuate, but perhaps it’s a good time to fill up your car with gas, and have your emergency kit ready to go. A volcano warning, on the other hand, may require you to evacuate quickly. If your kit is ready, then you should be on your way in no time. If you have children who attend school, determine who will pick them up in the event of an alert. How will your family get in touch and reunite if a disaster occurs when you’re at work or out of town? All of these questions need to be discussed and answered (as a family) prior to an emergency. For a free family communication and reunification worksheet, look here! As far as an evacuation plan goes, begin by establishing a home evacuation plan. Pick two or three ways to get out of your house safely and have drills every so often where everyone in the household participates. Then, determine what your community’s evacuation routes are. Learn two or three of these routes by heart. You should never rely solely on your phone’s map app during a disaster. Finally, secure at least two places where you can safely evacuate to. This could be a relative’s house away from the main threat and a local shelter. If your main risk is volcanic ash, your safest bet may be to shelter at home. This is something you need to decide.
- Make an emergency kit. Without a doubt, supplies and relief will be hard to come by during the first few days following a disaster. It’s necessary to prepare a bug-out kit for a quick and easy evacuation, but more importantly for your survival during the first 72 hours. Many times, it takes relief workers a couple of days to reach the communities affected by natural events, so you should be prepared to survive on your own until help arrives. Note that volcanic ash is especially hazardous to those who have respiratory difficulties, skin sensitivities, and/or other pre-existing conditions. The USGS has information about the respiratory effects that you can expect post-eruption but I also encourage you to talk to your doctor about tips on how to cope. Continue reading for a list of recommended items to have during a volcano emergency.
- Take CPR and first aid courses. When preparing for any emergency, but more importantly a high-impact disaster like this one, I recommend learning basic first and CPR. If you survive the eruption (which I sincerely hope you do!) you’ll immediately become a first responder. Having the knowledge to help others in desperate need may help save someone else’s life, especially if their wounds are critical. Remember that medical responders can take a little bit of time to get to the scene, and the life you save might not be a stranger’s necessarily but it could be one of your loved ones.
- Sign up for volcano alerts. Living in the 21st century has many benefits, including the advancement of technology. With that comes the availability of early warning systems and disaster forecasting. Although technology is not perfect, it does provide us with insight that many people in centuries past didn’t have access to. With that said, some volcanoes can be predicted IF there is enough data regarding their eruption history. Volcanoes are studied independently, and the government budget does not always extend to all the in-depth study of all volcanoes. Many are dormant and some may catch us by surprise. The USGS is making incredible advancements in their study of volcanic activity and early warning systems. If you live near a volcano, I recommend signing up for the free Volcano Notification Service (VNS). The USGS will send out e-mail updates about the volcanoes they’re monitoring. You can customize the alerts to your area. Find the VNS subscription page here. In combination with the VNS e-mail alert system, you should get the NOAA Weather Radio or phone app for additional disaster-related updates.
- Call your insurance company. Many homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies do not cover the damages caused by a volcano, nor the damage from earthquakes, floods, or other indirect volcano effects, as well as the cost to remove ashes or debris. Get in touch with your insurance agent to determine what your policy does and does not cover, and how to get coverage for the disasters your community is vulnerable to.
Volcanic eruption safety tips
What to do before a volcanic eruption:
- Gather all your evacuation supplies in an easy-to-access location.
- Review your city’s evacuation routes and decide which one will be the safest to take.
- Fill up your car with gas.
- Charge up all your devices, and keep them fully charged.
- Stay tuned to the local media and NOAA/ USGS alerts. Make sure the notification settings are turned on to alert you during night-time as well.
- Cover your windows and all exterior door openings with plastic sheets from the inside to prevent ash from entering the house.
- Have the entire household stay together indoors. If you have farm animals, keep them enclosed in a safe location. If you have outdoor pets, bring them inside the house.
How to stay safe during a volcanic eruption:
- Determine what is safest for your situation: evacuating or sheltering in place. If ordered to evacuate, obey those orders promptly.
- Do not drive if there’s a lot of ash— this can ruin your vehicle.
- Stay away from exclusion zones. Do not go downwind of the volcano nor anywhere near dams, rivers, valleys, or low-lying areas. Lahars will take the path of least resistance and many of these areas are particularly vulnerable. Heavy poisonous gases, like carbon dioxide, are found in downwind and low-lying areas which would put you at a high risk of fatal circumstances.
- Use a certified dust mask when going outdoors especially but indoors too if necessary.
- If sheltering in place, do not run the air conditioner or heater to prevent ash and volcanic gases from entering your home.
How to recover after a volcanic eruption:
- If you’ve sheltered in place, stay indoors until local authorities deem that it’s safe to go outside.
- Assess the damage done to your home. Take photos of everything! This may help serve as proof to your insurance company. Contact your insurance to see how to proceed.
- Remove ashes from your roof as soon as possible, especially if a rainstorm is predicted. Ash can become very heavy and cause structural collapse, especially if it gets wet. Getting on the roof to removing the ashes can become risky because the surface becomes too slick to walk on and adding more weight by walking on it can cause it to cave in as well. Have a professional help you to prevent further property damage and physical injury.
Volcanic eruption emergency kit must-haves
In order to put together a volcano survival kit, you should consider the possibility of both evacuating and sheltering in place. By determining your level of risk and local resources, you can adjust your kits as necessary. As with any natural disaster kits, you should always stockpile enough supplies to help you survive on your own for at least the first 72 hours but if possible pack for 14 days.
If you’re evacuating, remember to include:
- Water: Have one gallon of water for each person in your household for at least three days. A simple water storage solution is the water box. Each box holds 5 gallons of water. They’re easy to transport in a vehicle during an evacuation. They’re cost-efficient when compared to plastic water bottles because they can be used, emptied, and reused.
- Food: Planning meals for an evacuation can get tricky. It might be best to pack healthy snacks that give you the necessary nutrients and protein while providing a meal that doesn’t require much preparation. For food ideas, check out this post for the complete list of survival foods and print the checklist to keep with your emergency kit!
- Bug-out kit: Your bug-out kit should include the minimum supplies to remain alive for a minimum of 72 hours or until help arrives. In some cases, evacuating on foot will be your only option, so prepare your backpack for that. Do not make your bug out backpack too heavy. Remember to include a recyclable water bottle and purification/ filtration system so you don’t have to carry three gallons on your back.
- Vehicle kit: Think of the possibility of roadside emergencies that can occur during a time when you and thousands of other people are evacuating too. Stay safe on the road with a vehicle kit like this one.
If you’re sheltering in place, remember to include:
- Water: Staying home gives you the chance to add more items to your emergency preparedness kit. For a water solution, I recommend getting a water tank that holds at least 15 gallons. This is a good choice if you’re looking for one! You should also include a method of water purification because it’s likely that the water will be contaminated post-volcanic eruption.
- Long-term food: Staying home also gives you flexibility in meal preparation. I recommend getting a food storage bucket with enough food to last your family 14 days or more. A kit, like these ones, provide you with the peace of mind that you can have a hot meal in minutes anytime you need it. These food kits have a shelf life of 20 years so you don’t need to rotate them very often.
- A stove and fuel kit: A cooking system will be necessary for preparing meals and having that comforting cup of coffee or tea we all desire at some point throughout the day. These kits are ideal for volcano preparedness because they heat up water quickly and they can be used indoors safely since the fuel does not burn toxic chemicals.
- A survival kit: A home survival kit should provide you with the supplies you need to survive 14 days or more at home without outside assistance. If help arrives sooner, that’s awesome! But if they don’t, you should be ready.
- A toilet and sanitation kit: Maintaining proper hygiene is one of the most important things in emergency preparedness, especially if the power is out and you can’t flush your toilet. Prevent the spread of disease by keeping your waste contained in a safe bucket. This toilet kit helps to seal and protect you from any pathogens that are found in human waste.
For both scenarios, remember to include:
- NOAA Weather Radio: A NOAA weather radio ensures that you always stay up-to-date with emergency alerts, even if the phone lines or internet are down. Remember to pack a few extra sets of batteries!
- N95 respirator/dust masks: Inhaling ash can cause irritation to your trachea, bronchial tubes, and lungs, among other organs. We agree with the CDC that you should protect your chest and lungs with N95 respirator masks. Have a few masks for each person in your household.
- Goggles: Your eyes too can become irritated from the ash and toxic gases in the environment. Protect them with goggles. Every member of your household should have at least one pair
- Appropriate clothing to cover all visible skin. Volcanic ash can cause irritation to your skin, so protect it by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Use a ski mask and beanie to cover as much of your head as possible, and wear the dust mask over it. Finally, include a sturdy pair of shoes and an extra change of clothes in your bug out backpack/ survival kit.
- A generator and fuel: Volcanos pose the risk of long-term power outages. Even if your home is not directly impacted by the eruption, a disruption in the electricity can be enough to create challenges. Having a generator can make all the difference, even if it’s small enough to power up your refrigerator and mobile devices.
- A first aid kit: Having a first aid (and the knowledge of how to use its contents) is essential during an emergency.
- Important documents binder and digital copies: Recovering from a disaster is difficult, but it will be extra difficult if you don’t have your valuable documents organized and in one place. I recommend keeping them in a sealed waterproof container. Store them in a safe location that you can access quickly in the event of an evacuation. As a backup, you should store them digitally on the Cloud. These are sensitive documents so make sure to protect them with a password!
- Items of personal need, including but not limited to: prescription medication, pet supplies, diapers, and feminine hygiene supplies. Every person in your household should have a personal kit where these types of items can be customized and included.
I know this post was really jam-packed! In order for you to feel fully prepared, I made a printable checklist highlighting the most important points mentioned in this article. You can store it with your emergency supplies and review it anytime!
- Remember the importance of communicating and reuniting with loved ones after a disaster. This page includes possible ways to get in touch without a phone or wifi, as well as a free worksheet where you can lay out your reunification plans.
If volcanoes are a threat to your community, then you’re probably also at risk of other natural disasters. Find complete guides to the following:
Raise awareness on tsunami preparedness!
Thanks for sticking around this far! I hope you found a lot of value in this article. 🙂
Before you go, let me ask you this— do you know someone else who lives in a volcano-risk zone? If so, please spread the word and share this guide with them! It will cost you nothing and they might gain a lot from it as well!
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The world’s 10 most devastating volcanic eruptions — Australian Geographic
Supervolcano eruption mystery solved — BBC News
Deep Ocean Volcanoes — NOAA Ocean Today
Glossary VEI — USGS
The most active volcanoes in the world — Volcano Discovery
Which was the costliest volcanic eruption in history? — World Economic Forum
Which is the world’s largest volcano? — Volcano Discovery
Do volcanoes occur in the ocean? — NOAA
Alert level icons depict volcano status on interactive maps — USGS Volcano Hazards Program
What was the most destructive volcanic eruption in the history of the United States? — USGS
Number of People Living Near Volcanoes Growing — Los Angeles Times