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Monday, 3 April, 2000, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Japan braced for major eruption

Japan's Mount Usu volcano may be on the brink of a major eruption after a period of relative quiet.

An expert monitoring Mount Usu in Hokkaido island said the volcano, which has erupted five times since Friday, had now entered a "critically important stage".

"[It] has entered the early stage of forming a large-scale magma dome," vulcanologist Hiromu Okada said.

"From now on, it is possible that we will see an explosive eruption or pyroclastic flow," the Hokkaido University professor said.

He warned that the nearby town of Abuta was in danger.

Pyroclastic flows are a deadly mix of volcanic debris and gases that can incinerate everything in their path.

Experts say magma has pushed through the mountain to an underground lake where it has turned the water to steam under great pressure.

The discovery of cracks in the ground hundreds of metres long has also raised the possibility that a lava dome could form, eventually leading to the growth of a new volcano.

Close monitoring

Ash and debris continue to spew out but the frequency of earthquakes has dropped to a handful of weak tremors every hour.
Evacuation of residents
Soldiers have helped evacuate 18,000 local residents
The area has been rocked by over 3,500 tremors in the past three days.

At least 18,000 local residents have been evacuated from the area into emergency shelters, and more than 3,000 soldiers and several naval vessels and helicopters are on standby to help with further evacuations.

Mudslides and magma

Japan's meteorological agency also warned of the danger of mudslides from snow melted by the volcanic heat.

Volcano's smoke
Smoke from the mount has reached more than 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) into the sky
At the foothills of the 732-metre (2,416-foot) Mount Usu are major resort areas where tourists come to rest in hot-spring spas.

About 51,000 people live in three towns around its base.

Mount Usu's last eruption, in 1978, left two people dead and destroyed nearly 200 homes.

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See also:

02 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mount Usu tremors slow down
01 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mount Usu roars again
01 Apr 00 | Broadband
Second eruption in Japan
31 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thousands flee as volcano blows
31 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Usu's fiery outburst
30 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Picture gallery: Japan's volcano
31 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Why volcanoes explode
30 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
The Earth's Ring of Fire
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