John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A tremendous eruption this Sunday on Mount Sakurajima delayed trains and turned streets as dark as night.
Let's get this straight: Kagoshima is a major Japanese city that was built on the doorstep of Mount Sakurajima, a volcano constantly bellowing with earth-shaking eruptions that are sometimes streaked with awesome lightning. And what does the city choose for its mascot? A weird dancing pig. Go figure.
That somebody in Kagoshima's government missed a primo adventure-tourism branding opportunity once again was on display Sunday afternoon, when Sakurajima blew its top and shot ash about 16,404 feet into the air, the highest-ever recorded plume for the volcano. Descending clouds of gritty particles quickly addled normal activity in the city, which is located on the southern tip of Kyushu and has a population of roughly 606,000. Commuter trains posted delays as ash accumulated on the tracks. Umbrella-carrying pedestrians felt their way through streets that had grown dark as night. There were no reported injuries.
Here's what Sunday's eruption looked like from somebody's window in Kagoshima. Imagine living next to this:
The ferocious explosion was one of the strongest in decades for the smoky peak. People across the water were able to spot a dusky pyroclastic flow rocketing down the volcano's slopes, dotted with hot-mineral spas and farms growing prodigious turnips that thrive in the soot-blackened soil. (Kagoshima: Land of the world's biggest daikon.) Yet to locals, the sun-erasing event was no great surprise: The volcano is intensely active, with about 500 eruptions under its belt this year alone.
Because they can't stick an immense rubber stopper into its fiery gullet, Kagoshima's residents have adapted to the frequent tremors and ash clouds. On the side of some roads are concrete bunkers that people can shelter in when the skies rain down rock. And during periods of danger, school children are given cute little hard hats to wear when they venture outside.
Whether they'll need to wear those helmets throughout this week is unknown: Officials say there's no imminent sign of another explosion, but are "urging caution" to those living and working nearby. Indeed, the Japan Meteorological Agency has Kagoshima on a "Level 3" alert. Their sensible advice: "Do not approach the volcano."
Here's a top-down view of Sakurajima showing just how close it is to many large urban areas. An astronaut took the photo from the International Space Station during one of the peak's ashy plume-spluts this January. Note the land bridge on the south side of Sakurajima – it was formed during a 1914 eruption that erased the volcano's status as an island:
(NASA / Expedition 34 crew)