Gab Ibis and Sean Michael S. Caguiwa

With the recent advisories of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) on the status of Taal, questions are raised about the safety of surrounding communities.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr/J. Gerard Seguia

Who are you, Taal?

Taal is a complex volcanic system, according to PHIVOLCS. It is prone to frequent volcanic activity, as shown in its history of 34 eruptions in a span of nearly half a millennium, with relatively recent eruptions in 1911, 1965-1977, and 2020.

The volcano is a geological paradox, located in the center of the lake, bearing the same name. Meanwhile, in the province of Batangas, Taal remains a tourist attraction, attracting nearly 30,000 visitors in peak months.

Despite the picturesque scene that Taal paints, the damage it wreaks in nearby localities shows a different picture after eruptions. Cities like Lipa and Tagaytay, both tourist-intensive, were declared by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) to be in the danger zone

This means that, above all other areas, they were to experience the wrath of Taal.

While Taal is 60 kilometers away from NCR, the region experienced ashfall during the 2020 Taal Eruption, which also denuded the entirety of the volcanic island and ejected ashfall in surrounding provinces.

The silent threat: what is vog?

Volcanic smog, or vog for short, was recently detected in surrounding areas on September 22. It is not only corrosive but may cause irritation of the eyes, skin, and airways. 

Due to the vog’s large particle size, several communities in Batangas have experienced zero visibility. This meant that traversing the areas was difficult and that this may only worsen due to increased vog cover in nearby communities.

PHIVOLCS also released advisories for the public. Volcanic gases, mainly sulfur dioxide (SO2), are the main component of vog. These gases irritate the airways and lungs weakening them.
  • Individuals suffering from asthma
  • Individuals with lung diseases
  • Filipinos with heart diseases
  • The elderly
  • Pregnant women
  • Children
Those with comorbidities, that is, people with existing complications, are more susceptible because of weakened airways. These comorbidities include people suffering from asthma, emphysema, tuberculosis (TB), and atherosclerosis, among others.

Weeping Earth: how is the environment affected by Taal?

Department of Science and Technology (DOST) secretary Renato Solidum raised the possibility of acid rain that can corrode housing and crops. This happens when gases, including sulfur, emitted from Taal combine with rainfall. 

“Talagang mapapansin ng ating mga kababayan diyan sa paligid ng Taal volcano iyong epekto ng volcanic fog or vog sa kanilang mga pananim,” Solidum said.

In addition, the rainy season may only add to the fire, with increased rainfall in areas surrounded by water, like Taal. SO2 particles in the vog combined with the heavier and more frequent rainfall, cause added damage in the form of acid rain.

In 2020, 577 million pesos worth of damage to livestock and crops was caused by the Taal explosion. This does not include the damage to property and the other countless lives affected by the volcano.

While the activity recorded in Taal is far from a critical state, statistics may assist local communities in proactive initiatives to reduce damages brought by it.

Local challenges: how are communities affected?

Even with 4,569 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitted per day, PHIVOLCS Director Teresito Bacolcol assured that there will be no need to panic—as it is “not alarming.”

"It is not alarming and it would not be a signal for us to raise the alert status to Level 2," Bacolcol stated.

Large quantities of steam flew to 2,400 meters high and continued on a path west-southwestward, with the provinces of Batangas, Cavite, and Laguna already suspending classes due to experiencing vog emissions. 

Aside from this, PHIVOLCS also reported five volcanic tremors that lasted 20 to 575 minutes in updates on the volcanic status of Taal via their website.

Numerous towns in Batangas, Laguna, and Cavite also suspended classes due to increased vog. 

691 Batangas residents have also been affected and hospitalized due to vog. 

Calabarzon Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (RDRRMC) also continued its health response within the region. 

Meanwhile, localized efforts of the Batangas Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office strengthened with the distribution of N95 masks in communities within the province.

Although Metro Manila cited occurrences of vog, DOST secretary Solidum rebutted this, as the smog did not contain any sulfur dioxide (SO2) but rather was caused by vehicle emissions.

Imus Bishop Reynaldo Evangelista also called the public to pray for the safety of communities within the Taal area.

“Madalas po kayong maapektuhan ng ganitong mga pollutants sa Taal Volcano area galing sa bulkan; dito sa Metro Manila, galing sa mga sasakyan,” Solidum said in a public briefing.

Nevertheless, the risks associated with vog emphasize the need for continued vigilance.

PHIVOLCS, meanwhile, also warned about possible after-effects of the recent Taal activity including:
  • Steam-driven explosions
  • Earthquakes
  • Possible ashfall
  • Accumulations of volcanic gas

Community engagement: how can we protect ourselves?

PHIVOLCS’ recent advisory also instructed people in surrounding areas on what to do during Taal’s increased activity.
  • Stay indoors.
  • Keep doors and windows shut to keep vog out.
  • Wear an N95 mask in case outside activities are a must.
  • Drink water to mitigate the effects of throat irritation.
  • Contact medical professionals when severe symptoms persist.
Similarly, the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) deputy spokesperson Diego Agustin Mariano also advised the public to stay home and avoid direct contact outside to lessen public interaction with vog.

“Stay at home. Close the doors and windows,” Mariano advised.

Future outlooks: beyond Taal

As of September 29, Taal is still under Alert Level 1, which indicates ongoing activity without an imminent eruption.

While this may be an assurance that an eruption is far, civil institutions are ensuring public safety during the increased vog activity.

PHIVOLCS is still closely following the activity of the volcano, utilizing state-of-the-art equipment for seismic monitoring.

The possibility of the alert level increasing, however, cannot be ruled out. De-escalating or escalating the hazard may happen due to the unpredictability of Taal. While hazardous, this serves as a call for local communities to strengthen their disaster risk reduction and management plans while maintaining community integration.