Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Imminent eruption of Mount Merapi

The island of Java with the location of Mount Merapi highlighted

The island of Java with the location of Mount Merapi highlighted. (Copyright © 2006 David M. Lawrence)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — One of my major concerns is societal collapse following natural disaster. The global landscape is littered with the ruins of societies that have disappeared as a result of environmental calamity – whether caused by extreme drought, major flood, massive storm, devastating earthquake, or catastrophic volcanic eruption.

The world watches the volcanic activity on Mount Merapi, about 30 kilometers north of Yogyakarta, a city of about 400,000 in south-central Java, in Indonesia. Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia, which in turn has more active volcanoes than any other nation.

Locals have long recognized the volcanic hazard from Merapi – the name means “mountain of fire.” It is a stratovolcano, a tall (more than 2,960 meters), steep-sided mountain capable of explosive eruptions, ash falls, lava flows, lahars, and nuée ardents – glowing clouds – the type of hazard that destroyed the Caribbean city of St. Pierre in 1902.

Tens of thousands live in the danger zone in the densely populated area around Merapi. It poses a threat to two provincial capitals, Yogyakarta to the south and Semarang, on the coast of the Java Sea to the North. About 1,370 persons were killed in an eruption of the volcano in 1930; 66 were killed in another eruption in 1960. The volcano averaged about five eruptions a century from the 1500s to the 1700s; it erupted more than 20 times in the 1800s and more than 25 times last century (Volcano World;

Exactly one thousand years ago, Merapi may have contributed to more than the destruction of a city – it may have triggered a shift in power between the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms which had held sway over much of Java to Muslim kingdoms that asserted dominance over the island afterward.

The late Dutch geologist, Reinout Willem van Bemmelen, in his 1949 book, “The Geology of Indonesia,” claimed that an eruption of Merapi blanketed much of Central Java with ash. The destruction allegedly forced the Kingdom of Mataram, which had been based in the region of what is now Yogyakarta but was being pressed from the west by the Srivijayan kingdom of southern Sumatra, to relocate to the eastern portion of Java.

The vacuum left by the evacuation of the Mataram dynasty paved the way for Muslim domination of central Java.

According to the Global Volcanism Program of the Smithsonian Institution (, the 1006 eruption has been discredited. Nevertheless, the volcano had erupted several times during the time that the Mataram dynasty resided in the area. Indonesians are hosting an international conference, the Volcano International Gathering 2006, in Yogyakarta in September. The conference will commemorate the 1,000 anniversary of the alleged eruption, despite what the Smithsonian says.

And if discussion of the downfall of the Mataram kingdom wears thin, it is almost certain that Merapi will have given the world’s vulcanologists much more immediate events to discuss in the meantime.

– 30 –

Tagged as: , , , , ,

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.