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Mount Mayon: a tale of love and destruction

Mount Mayon is one of the Philippines' most distinctive volcanoes. It draws tourists to see its conical shape, farmers for its fertile soil and volcanologists who want to examine its explosive power, as the BBC's Vaudine England reports.

Mt Mayon, people planting rice, 24 Dec 09
Mount Mayon is mythologised as the result of a tortured love affair

According to local folklore, Mount Mayon was formed because of a Romeo and Juliet-style love story.

Legend has it that Daragang Magayon - literally Lady Beautiful, from a ruling family of Bicol province - fell in love with a prince who was from a clan at war with her own.

Their families forbade their passion, so they fled. Tribal war ensued, prompting the lovelorn couple to commit suicide together at a site now marked by the volcano.

More lyrical versions of the tale insist the site is a perpetual combination of beautiful Magayon - the volcano - wreathed in white clouds representing the prince.

During eruptions, some older people say they can hear the volcano crying from a voice of a male and a female.

Alex Baloloy, a scientist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology station at Mayon and veteran of half a dozen eruptions, laughs at the legend, but is convinced the volcano is female "because she's beautiful".

Dangerous force

Lava night shot, Mayon, 23 Dec 09
The lava flows are a spectacular sight at night

But the reality is that Mayon has a destructive power, and a major eruption could trigger pyroclastic flows - superheated gas and volcanic debris that race down the slopes at high speeds, incinerating or vaporising everything in their path.

In previous eruptions, such flows have reached 6 km (4 miles) from the crater.

More extensive explosions of ash could drift toward nearby towns and cities, including Legazpi, about 15 km (9 miles) away.

The first recorded eruption of Mount Mayon was in 1616, but the most destructive came in 1814, when the volcano emitted several hundred million cubic metres of ash.

According to reports at the time, the town of Cagsawa, 11 km (6.8 miles) away from the summit, was completely buried — only the tower of the town's church remained above the new surface.

I've seen a lot of volcanoes and I think Mayon is the archetypal volcanic beauty
Mahar Lagmay, volcanologist, University of the Philippines

In July 2006, the 48th eruption since records began, the volcano oozed lava and vented steam and ash for two months.

Then three months later, the powerful Typhoon Durian (local name Reming) brought heavy rainfall, dumping 495.8 mm (almost 20 inches) of water over one-and-a-half days.

This combined with the tons of volcanic ash and debris that had collected on Mayon's slopes, creating a fast-moving avalanche of mud and boulders called lahar, destroying villages and leaving 1,266 people dead.

"The Durian event was exceptional," experts reported in the aftermath, but such post-eruption devastation had happened before. A similar event in 1825 again affected the town of Cagsawa, and killed 1,500 people.

Restive earth

Professor Mahar Lagmay, a volcanologist from the University of the Philippines' National Institute of Geological Sciences, has studied several of his country's 22 active volcanoes.

"There are different types of volcanoes and eruptions, and we can study these based on written records and records of the rocks and deposits around each volcano," he told the BBC.

The Philippines' most dramatic eruption in recent decades was of Mount Pinatubo, in June 1991.

Hundreds of people died in that explosion, which scattered ash as far as away as Manila 60 km ( 37 miles) away, and radically altered negotiations over the future of two United States military bases nearby.

Mayon with man and buffalo 18 Dec 09
Residents love Mayon for its fertile land and dangerous beauty

"For Pinatubo, the records show the eruptions were very large, widely spaced by about 100 years each time," said Professor Lagmay.

The lengthy build-up of magma beneath the surface over a long period of time produced 11bn cubic metres (390bn cubic feet) of volcanic material, he explained.

By contrast this latest build-up on Mount Mayon is "relatively small", he said, having produced tens of millions of cubic metres of volcanic material.

The general rule of thumb for geologists is that the more often a volcano erupts, the smaller each eruption is likely to be - and Mayon has been a regular emitter.

But "all explosive eruptions are dangerous", Professor Lagmay warned.

Mayon's near perfect cone and its single vent continue to hold experts in thrall.

The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has a monitoring station just at the base of Mayon, which is akin, scientists said, to having Mayon in an intensive care unit with all its vital signs subject to constant examination.

"I've seen a lot of volcanoes," said Professor Lagmay, "and I think Mayon is the archetypal volcanic beauty."



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