By Jonathan Best
Philippine Daily Inquirer

DateFirst Posted 22:05:00 01/30/2011

There has been death and destruction behind that tranquil view, such as the catastrophic 1911 eruption that killed thousands
THIS JANUARY 30th marks the 100th anniversary of the most recent catastrophic eruption of Taal Volcano, the first to be scientifically documented and photographed. Charles Martin, the official photographer for the Philippine Bureau of Science, almost lost his life by climbing to the crater?s rim and photographing the first signs of this major eruption. His black and white photographs were published by National Geographic in April 1912, bringing worldwide attention to Taal Volcano and the Philippines? restive terrain.

Today, heading south from Manila along Coastal Road and Aguinaldo Highway or on the speedier South Luzon Expressway, one leaves the urban sprawl of Metro Manila after about half an hour. By the time you reach Silang or Santa Rosa, the terrain rises steadily towards the south, broken only by deep gorges lined with lacy bamboo amid groves of coconut palms, spreading mango trees and pineapple fields. The air is cooler and the soil is rich; vendors sell fresh fruit and coconuts honey, and native vinegar along the road.

Over the last 20 years, golf courses and luxury gated villages have sprouted throughout this region, making overnight millionaires of local farming families and greatly increasing traffic on the narrow winding country roads.

Sixty kilometers south of Manila, Aguinaldo Highway ends abruptly at the Tagaytay Ridge rotunda, where tourists get their first view of Taal Volcano?s spectacular ancient caldera, one of the most beautiful views in Southeast Asia. Spread out far below is a vast circular valley more than 25 km across, filled with a shimmering freshwater lake and punctuated by two active volcanic cones.

Taal Volcano is the reason for the elevation, the cool air, the rich soil and the beautiful view. The Tagaytay Ridge is the northern rim of one of the largest tectonic depressions in the world. It was formed in relatively recent geological time, some 200,000 years ago. Its prehistoric eruptions buried much of central Luzon with volcanic ejecta (ash, cinders, molten rocks, airborne mud and flowing lahar) and must have dramatically effected global weather from time to time. The large deposits of tuff or composite volcanic rock seen along the Pasig river in the Guadalupe district of Manila are remnants of these cataclysmic events. Even as recently as 2,000 years ago, evidence from archeological excavations in Batangas suggests large parts of central Luzon were rendered uninhabitable by massive eruptions.

Today, all looks tranquil and bucolic from Tagaytay Ridge. Farmers and fisherfolk have settled on Volcano Island in the center of the lake, despite official warnings. Housing developments and resorts have crept down the old caldera walls from the ridge, moving ever closer to the shores of the lake. The Ridge itself, stretching from the Tagaytay Highlands to the town of Tagaytay, has dozens of new restaurants, guest houses, hotels, even a casino and a shopping mall. Few people seem concerned with Taal?s destructive past, preferring instead to enjoy the view, the salubrious air, the cool breezes and the rich volcanic soil.

Since the 16th century, when Spanish friars first settled in Batangas, more than 33 eruptions have been recorded, some minor ones only affecting Volcano Island, and several major ones which laid waste to the towns around Lake Bombon, now renamed Taal Lake. In the early 17th century, friars celebrated Mass on the volcano?s slopes and even erected a huge cross on the volcano?s rim in the hope of quieting its noisy subterranean demons, all to no avail. Taal remains an especially noisy volcano, possibly because of its proximity to water which gives rise to hissings and rumblings and underground steam explosions. The lake was once connected to Balayan Bay to the south, but the outlet was blocked by volcanic debris two centuries ago.

The eruptions of 1749 and 1754 were especially destructive. The main crater exploded, sending up masses of mud and ash, inundating the towns to the south and east, which were hit by repeated tsunamis generated by the explosions and earthquakes. The tremors were so continuous and violent that earth fissures opened up in the roads as far north as Calamba on Laguna de Bay and as far south as Lemery on Balayan Bay.

It was after the catastrophic eruptions of 1754, which lasted on-and-off for over six months, that the devastated towns of Tanauan, Sala, Lipa and Taal were moved inland, away from the lake shore. Even the most sturdy buildings of stone and tile succumbed to the constant shaking and the weight of almost a meter of wet ash and mud.

Starting on the night of Jan. 27, 1911, Manila and the surrounding provinces were shaken by hundreds of minor earth tremors, some measuring magnitude 4 and above, severe enough to alarm the residents. The next day, reports reached the city that Taal was active, and steam was rising from its central crater. The tremors increased until 1 a.m. of Jan. 30, when a loud explosion woke people from their beds and a rain of mud and ash began to fall on the towns along the northern edge of the Taal Lake.

An hour and 15 minutes later, two more huge explosions were heard, one immediately after the other. Dean Worcester, a zoologist and Secretary of Interior for the insular government, reported in National Geographic the following year that ?In Manila, the shock from the explosions was so great that people leapt from their beds in terror.? The blasts were heard from the Mountain Province to the Visayas, and the night sky over Taal came alive with a spectacular display of lightning and incandescent rocks thrown high into the moon-lit sky by the volcano.

A huge column of ash and steam rose from the crater on Volcano Island; black mud laced with sulfuric acid rained down, and a pyroclastic cloud of ash, toxic gas and superheated steam enveloped the Island and shot across the lake to the west, accompanied by huge waves and continuous earthquakes. No one survived on the island, and many of the towns on the western shore of the lake were completely destroyed with few, if any, survivors. The toxic black rain killed all the crops and livestock in a wide area, and ash reportedly fell on over 1,200 square miles. The official death toll reached 1,335, but may well have been much higher, as many isolated rural folk were buried by ash and mud or swept into the lake by the waves.

The accounts of the eruption of January 30, 1911 paint a grim picture of what might be in store for the present inhabitants of the greater Taal caldera. Certainly there will be future eruptions?exactly when, nobody can say. However, Philvolcs, the national volcano monitoring service, is doing a good job of looking out for any signs of trouble. They record every earth tremor, watch for swelling of the active cones, and check the temperature and level of the lake and issue alerts whenever necessary. Taal is the second most active volcano in the Philippines after Mt. Mayon, and must be watched carefully.

The good news is that volcanoes almost always give plenty of warning before major eruptions. It is up to the local residents and municipal, provincial and national authorities to be alert and have well-planned evacuation routes and emergency equipment in place. Sadly, local residents don?t always listen to official warnings, and hang around watching their property until it is too late. Taal?s Volcano Island is one of the country?s most beautiful tourist attractions, and is best left in its natural state. For both safety?s sake and natural beauty, it should definitely be off limits to farming and permanent residences or any commercial development.

Photos from National Geographic Collection of Rafael Ortigas, Jr. and from Jonathan Best, senior consultant, Ortigas Foundation Library