Mt. Pinatubo – Is it really a ‘Beautiful Disaster’?

Mt. Pinatubo — a ‘beautiful disaster’?

Mt. Pinatubo, known by many today as the ‘Beautiful Disaster’ due to its breathtaking caldera (crater), made news globally when it erupted in June 1991. Although a lot of Filipinos and even volcanologists worldwide are aware of the cataclysmic phenomenon it caused in the 20th century, some may only know the tip of the iceberg — or in this case, volcano. Not everyone completely knows about the events that transpired before, during, and after the eruption. Such extraordinary and powerful display of force of nature deserves everyone’s respect and attention.

It may be a ‘Beautiful Disaster’ to some, but to most people who have witnessed its eruption, its existence and the force of nature that it’s showcased definitely means so much more.

The Ancestral Pinatubo

Prior to it becoming the second (if not the first) largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century, the volcano’s formation, not known to many, started approximately a million years ago. The centre of the ancient stratovolcano (believed to be as high as 2,300 meters) stands roughly at the same spot of the Modern Pinatubo today. There’s not enough data to prove that the Ancestral Pinatubo had large eruptions.

However, based on the study conducted by US Geological Survey (USGS), Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), and University of the Philippines (UP), the caldera of the Modern Pinatubo (the one in present day) actually has “exposed relict walls of an old 3.5×4.5-km caldera.”

Pinatubo Crater

The once sleeping giant later transformed to the Modern Pinatubo that did not just alter the terrains surrounding it, but also changed the global climate temporarily and the course of history permanently.

The Modern Pinatubo and the prelude to disaster

In contrast to what most people know, the Modern Pinatubo’s eruption in the year 1991 is not its first scientifically recorded eruption and is in fact believed to be the smallest eruption the volcano has ever had in its existence. Based on the study conducted by a group of volcanologists, the volcano had at least 6 major eruption periods starting 35,000 years prior to the 1991 eruption.

The volcano which dozed on and off for thousands of years finally decided to show signs of shallow slumber in 1991.

During that time, the Philippine population was at 63 million and was still growing. To Filipinos living on the low-lands, it is nothing but just a mountain. However, for the Aeta tribes living close to the mountain, they believe that it is the sacred home of Apo Malyari (also, Apo Namalyari — their God, great protector and provider).

“It is our responsibility to look after the mountain, defend it and care for it, it is holy, because we believe it is Apo Malyari’s home.” – Flor Dela Cruz, Aeta Tribeswoman

April 2, 1991, the Aeta tribes living in the mountain where their God lives has witnessed the first signs of the upcoming disaster. A series of small explosions and plumes of steam rose from the mountain and served as its primary warning of what’s about to happen.

The Aetas were terrified and didn’t understand what’s happening. All they thought of was Apo Malyari, their god, must be angry.

The following day, the local tribes sought help from a local nun, Sis. Emma Fontavilla who later decided to accompany Flor Dela Cruz, one of the eyewitnesses, to visit PHIVOLCS and did their best to convince its former director, a globally renowned volcanologist, Dr. Ray Punongbayan, about that what they have witnessed and might need immediate attention.

Ray Punongbayan was the key individual who would later decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos that are about to be impacted by the upcoming eruption. Faced by several challenges such as lack of advanced equipment, scepticism both from himself and the people around him, he decided to further investigate the phenomenon. He ordered his team of seismic experts to fly to the summit and from what their apparatus recorded, they detected more than 200 separate earthquakes. An indication that a huge force of nature is steering underneath the surface.

Later on, with the help of USGS led by Chris Newhall and their more advanced technology, they continuously observed the volcano. Until it finally started to show more concrete signs of a cataclysmic disaster that is about to happen.

The explosion

Surrounded by scepticism from the National Government of both the Philippines and the United States, Dr Punongbayan and Chris Newhall are pressured to predict when exactly the volcano would erupt. The accuracy of their predictions would later dictate whether hundreds of thousand lives would be spared or would perish.

PHIVOLCS finally ordered the evacuation of the Aetas living near the summit, which broke their hearts. They’re forced to leave their home, their holy land. However, some tribes decided to stay and hid in caves. Hoping that the caves would protect them and that their God would spare them.

Determined to provide a more accurate prediction, PHIVOLCS and USGS decided to head to the summit once again to observe the volcano’s activity up close, hoping that they’d see more solid indications of when the eruption would happen. What they found raised the alarms and the stakes higher. Plumes of sulfur dioxide, “tons of it”, escaping from the volcano’s summit were found. A clear indication of magma building up close to the surface and an impending huge explosion.

Two weeks later, Ray Punongbayan ordered the evacuation of almost a million people from Pinatubo’s surrounding provinces. On the other hand, his team of seismologists from PHIVOLCS, together with Chris Newhall’s USGS Team, is stationed at Clark Airbase, close to the volcano, observing its activities while staying as close as possible to the danger zone, in the hopes that their efforts would save more lives.

“For me, as far as I am concerned, it was something I had to do, there’s no choice anymore. I mean, my kids needed me, but my country needed me more.” PJ De Los Reyes, seismologist of PHIVOLCS

June 7, 1991, Mt. Pinatubo’s first big eruption occurred. “A 28,000 feet plume of steam, erupts into the atmosphere.”

June 12, 1991, 8:50 AM, it shot an enormous “giant, dark, grey, swirling 60,000 feet column of ash straight up to the sky in just a minute. So powerful is the force of the eruption that even its sound waves shoot straight up. Those watching on the ground hear nothing. This awesome event took place in silence.”

June 15, 1991, 5:55 AM onwards, “the seismographs go off the chart”. The eruption, what people witnessed “is almost beyond imagination. The western horizon is one giant boiling cloud of ash.” In a span of 6 hours, the volcano erupted for four more times. Mt. Pinatubo spewed millions of tons of ash and poison gas to the sky. Volcanic rocks “rained down as far as 30 miles away.” The day became night, at noontime, there’s nothing but darkness “as if it’s the end of the world.”

The first thing that came to my mind is that I might not see my family again. I’ve been away from my family for one and a half months already…and I was wondering whether I’d have the chance to see them again. – Leyo Bautista, a mother, and a geologist of PHIVOLCS

June 15, 1991, 1:42 PM, “comes the world’s single-most cataclysmic eruption finally happened. A release of energy 200,000 times greater than the Hiroshima atomic blast. A cubic mile, five cubic kilometres of magma detonates straight up to the stratosphere in seconds. Pyroclastic flows thunder for miles in all directions, billowing killer clouds of superheated ash and rocks at 15,000 degrees Fahrenheit at a hundred miles an hour.”

I think you can light off every bomb, every rocket, explosive man has stored all over the world and I don’t know you would’a registered to the earth what mother nature did on that 15th of June. It was unbelievable  – Ron Rand, US Air Force

And as if nature hasn’t had enough yet, super-typhoon Yunya hit the archipelago on the same day of the climax of Pinatubo’s eruption. Its strong winds mixed with the pyroclastic flows caused volcanic ashes to rain like cement on the volcano’s victims, infrastructures, and properties. Lahar, a mudflow composed of Yunya’s torrential rain and pyroclastic matter, destroyed everything on its way.

It’s as if nature was trying to prove how powerful it could be and how irrelevant we, human beings, as compared to its natural forces.

The aftermath – “A lifeless black and white world”

According to the report of USGS and PHIVOLCS covering from June 15, 1991, to November 17, 1992, around 717 people died, both directly and indirectly, from the eruption. Approximately 329,141 families or 2.1 million people were affected or displaced from four different provinces in Luzon. Almost 76,000 houses were damaged and almost 5000 of which were obliterated. Infrastructures, livelihood and agriculture, education and overall national economy were greatly impacted.

On a global scale, the eruption resulted to a heavy influx of aerosol pollutants in the atmosphere that resulted to “a measurable cooling of the Earth’s surface for a period of almost two years.” 

Mt. Pinatubo eruption’s casualties aren’t as high as compared to the number of lives taken away by some of the equally devastating cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. All thanks to PHIVOLCS and USGS’ combined efforts. However, despite the damage that has been mitigated,  it still caused so much to the Philippines. Some of those damages were still felt several years after the eruption, and the victims have suffered physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Given all that, is it still ethical to say that the eruption is a ‘beautiful disaster’?

Indeed, the volcano, now a tourist hotspot, boasts of one of the country’s geological wonders. It is beautiful, no doubt about that. However, before we truly embrace calling it a ‘beautiful disaster’, it wouldn’t hurt to know more about what truly transpired back in 1991.

More than just a ‘beautiful disaster’

The eruption did not just reveal the stunning caldera that lies at the heart of Mt. Pinatubo, but it actually revealed something far more beautiful and meaningful — the resiliency of the Filipino people.

It’s no secret that the citizens of the Philippines have endured so many hardships in the past which included acts of cruelty both from fellow humans and the powerful acts of nature. However, let’s not forget that the true beauty that lies in the archipelago is the connected hearts of its people that’s full of courage and bravery, warmth, and optimism.

That’s the true beauty that the country has proudly displayed despite and in spite of everything. Even the most cataclysmic and destructive natural phenomenon ever recorded in recent human history, won’t be able to take that away from the hearts of its people.


National Geographic TV – Surviving Mt. Pinatubo