So you want to visit an active volcano?

- Dr. Janine Krippner

This is a scary blog post to write. Why? Because even if you follow every bit of advice here you could still get hurt on a volcano. No one wants to give inadequate advice but I do not want to see any of you get hurt. The only way to eliminate the risk of getting injured or killed on a volcano is to not be there. I repeat: The only way to eliminate the risk of getting hurt or killed on a volcano is to not be there. But you can take some safety steps to reduce that risk. Keep in mind that this is not a complete list, and above all else, ALWAYS follow advice from local agencies who know the volcano and work to keep people safe.

Last week a young man lost his life at Stromboli. He wasn't doing anything wrong. There was a large explosion that gave no warning and he never went home to his friends and family. This is what we face when we visit volcanoes. It is a calculated risk just like getting into your car. I love volcanoes and I intend to keep visiting them, so here are things I consider before I go. My hope here is not to scare anyone or give a false sense of security, but to arm you with knowledge so that you can make informed decisions and hopefully stay safe to enjoy these incredible locations. Just as we get shots before we travel to specific regions, there are considerations to take into account with volcanoes.

The number one piece of advice is know who the local volcano monitoring agency and the emergency management agency are, and where they post updates. Every volcano is different and the situation can rapidly change. Keep an eye out for activity updates and alerts, and follow their advice. They are there to keep people safe. Remember that information can quickly spiral out of control during an eruption so know where to get the correct information before you go.
- List of volcano observatories
- List of volcano agencies on Twitter

Know where the Exclusion zones are and stay out of them. They are there to protect you. Stay on paths if they are available, this is one of the most simple things you can do to avoid hazards. Also keep in mind that not all fatalities are in designated hazards zones so you should always be aware of your surroundings. Driving around volcanoes can be incredibly dangerous just by itself as roads can be narrow and unstable.

Know the hazards. 

Last year I was horrified watching a video of people standing on a bridge near Fuego volcano filming a pyroclastic flow racing towards them. I hope that if they knew what that rocky cloud of death was, that they would have run the second they saw it. When we are in a crisis our brains respond differently so always be prepared ahead of time. Your life may depend on this. Know what the hazards are, know what they look like, keep an eye and ear out for any changes, and leave immediately if you are concerned. Don't spend much time in valleys as they can funnel the most dangerous of hazards right towards you at speeds you cannot outrun. Bridges are not safe. Lahars can remove them and pyroclastic flows can engulf them. The VolFilm videos here go over what the dangers are (hazards), how they impact people and things (impacts), and experiences of those who have lived through them. They are available in multiple languages. Also know the local non-volcanic hazards, like bears and snakes.

When you go hiking anywhere you should tell people where you will be and when they should expect you back. Do this on volcanoes too. If you can, have a way of contacting people, and have a plan to get out of there if anything goes wrong. Knowing how to use a handheld GPS can be very helpful to help you if you get lost or need to find your way back in a hurry. Having first aid training, especially those courses designed for outdoors situations, is a good idea. A First Aid Kit is essential for us when we do field work, and do know how to use what it contains. Do you have personal medication? Include it. Take adequate food and water. Dehydration is no joke! I am speaking from experience as someone who has got sick from sun/heat exposure twice. It really, really sucks.

Volcanoes can change very quickly and eruptions can begin with little to no warning. This VolFilm video explains what explosive eruptions are and how they occur. Make informed decisions on where to visit and what risks you are just not willing to take.

Take safety gear with you. Hot rocks can rain down on you during an explosion. Volcanic ash can be nasty (even without an eruption wind can mobilize ash) and gas can be an issue. Include warm clothes, heat/fire-resistant clothing, tough boots (seriously!), hard hat, heat-resistant gloves, N-95 mask, and a flashlight (you can fall off a cliff in the dark if you get held up and lose sunlight. This has happened). Many volcanologists have seen people in skimpy clothing and flip-flops with just a tiny bottle of water (or not even that). Even weather can be fatal on a volcano. Wear what you want off a volcano, be prepared when you're surrounding yourself with sharp rocks in an environment where the weather, and the volcano, can change very quickly.

Remember that volcanic ash (not smoke, more here) is pulverized rock, glass, and crystals. You can find information on volcanic ash and gas health and safety here and if you have more questions get in touch with Dr. Claire Horwell on Twitter. That website has information pamphlets you can print out or save onto your phone before you go. Smoke can also be a hazard where fires are a risk and hot eruption material can burn vegetation.

While we are talking about volcanic ash - careful wiping it off any valuables as it is hard and sharp. Even fine dust that collects on glasses can scratch the heck out of them when you wipe it off. Again, experience talking here. Use water. This also goes for camera lenses.

For more information on volcanic ash health and safety go here.

For explosions there is no solid advice. A case study of the fatal Galeras eruption concludes:
"The accounts of the survivors give some justification to believe that it is better to shelter behind a boulder and watch out for flying rocks rather than to keep running from the crater area and be caught unawares. On the other hand, waiting too close to the vent area for very long might result in the survivor being caught in a bigger eruptive event, or even a minor pyroclastic flow".
I have heard people say that you should stop and watch where the rocks will land during an explosion, but this may not work if there are hundreds of rocks. Yes, I know that this is not helpful at all. This is the reality of these events. If there are shelters nearby (preferably thick concrete shelters), know where they are and how to get to them. Situational awareness really is that important.

Melted spots in a GoreTex jacket from hot rocks impacting during the Galeras explosion. Read the full case study here.

Volcanoes are incredible and beautiful to visit, but please know what the dangers are. As a volcanologist, knowing what the hazards are changes my behavior and it helps me to know what to look and listen out for. This summary by Sarah Brown et al. describing where and how people are killed on volcanoes gives you an idea of what the hazards are and where they occur:
- Study summary: New study analyzes volcanic fatalities in more detail than ever before
- Full paper: Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification

These two figures are from the paper:

People die in areas thought to be safe. We balance safety and experience when we visit volcanoes. Always be aware of your surroundings, understand the dangers, and take safety precautions to increase your chances of having a great trip. Find more information on preparedness here and more information as shown the following image:

Volcanoes are beautiful, incredible places full of awe and wonder. They are my most favorite places on Earth! We should all have a chance to enjoy them. As with any adventure, do some preparation ahead of time so that you can enjoy your trip.

More helpful posts:
- This explains volcanic processes and hazards
- This is an example of travel considerations during the Agung volcanic crisis in late 2017
- Here is a bunch of videos explaining volcanic processes so that you can see what they look like
- How explosions can occur at seemingly innocent lava flows

Got any more trustworthy safety advice that I can add? Get in touch with me on Twitter.

Thank you to Sarah Brown. Brian Terbush, and Ed Venzke for help with the Twitter thread that led to this blog post, and the many, many scientists around the world who have contributed to the knowledge and experiences shared here.

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