6 November 2010

The volcano Gatekeeper

Posted by Jessica Ball

Pyroclastic flows at Merapi in 2006

One of the sad – but not unexpected – stories to come from the eruption at Mount Merapi concerns the death of the “Gatekeeper” of the volcano, Mbah Marijan. Marijan was mentioned in a 2008 National Geographic article, “The Gods Must Be Restless”, that I blogged about a long time ago – and that has turned out to be depressingly prophetic.  The NG article deals with the unsteady balance between science and belief in Indonesia, where natural disasters are often taken as signs that some cosmic power is angry with the country’s rulers. Superstition and religious beliefs compete with volcanology and the efforts of emergency management workers, and the outcome has been predictably tragic. When I wrote the post about the article, I was thinking how horrible it would be if people near Merapi died because they chose to listen to their spiritual leaders rather than the scientists whose job it is to warn them of volcanic hazards – and I hate to think now that exactly that has happened. More than 140 people have died, many because they ignored evacuation orders and danger zones, and it’s possible that more will follow.

There’s a line in the article that brings up a number of thoughts:

Marijan’s behavior might seem suicidal anywhere else, but not in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,500 islands that straddles the western reaches of the hyperactive Ring of Fire.

I don’t understand why the article’s author chose to phrase the thought that way – implying that refusing to leave an active volcano in Indonesia is less suicidal than some other place – but it’s depressing to think that for Marijan, it really was suicidal. And it makes me angry to think that his arrogant behavior may have been the reason that other people died – that they might be alive now if they had listened to evacuation orders rather than his advice.

Another bit of the article is more prophetic:

Overnight, government volcanologists have raised the alert to its highest level. The lava dome might collapse at any moment. Hasn’t Marijan heard? The entreaties leave Marijan unimpressed. The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? “That’s what the experts say,” he says, smiling. “But an idiot like me can’t see any change from yesterday.”

Volcanologists may not interpret a volcano’s activity in a spiritual way, but that’s a terrible reason to ignore their advice. Because it can be deadly – and in Mbah Marijan’s case, it was.

I encourage you to read the whole article – it’s sobering, especially when compared with what’s happening in Indonesia now.

*Addendum: When I wrote this post, I was definitely writing with my emotional hat on, rather than trying to see the situation from the point of view of the people experiencing it. After reading the excellent comment by Stephanie Tubman, I realize that my emotional response could come across as very one-sided in favor of the scientific crowd, which was not my intention. I still feel that the situation was tragic and could have been avoided, but it’s true that it’s not as clear-cut as my original post implied. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, Stephanie!