Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 13. Tales (mainly) from the ‘Ring of Fire’

Earth, wind, and fire (not that Earth, Wind & Fire—still active 45 years after the group formed).

No, these are some reflections, going back almost as far as EWF, about my encounters with and experiences of earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanoes (fortunately mostly dormant) around the Ring of Fire.

But first, a summer morning in west Wales
Take 19 July 1984 for example. Steph and I with our two daughters Hannah and Philippa were enjoying a week’s holiday in Pembrokeshire, in west Wales. We’d rented a nice cottage, in Broad Haven, on the coast south of St David’s. As usual, one of us had gone downstairs to make a cup of tea. Steph says it was her; I think it was me. No matter. But just as the tea-maker was about to climb the stairs back to our bedroom (lying in bed, waking up to and enjoying a cup of tea, is one of life’s simple pleasures), we felt the house shake. There had been an earth tremor, hardly worthy of the description ‘earthquake’. But noticeable enough, especially if, like me, you had become sensitized to such tectonic events.

Further north, close to the epicenter on the Llŷn Peninsula, it was much stronger, registering 5.4 on the Richter scale, and was ‘the largest known onshore earthquake to occur in the UK since instrumental measurements began‘. It was felt all over Wales and many parts of England. Chimneys fell from roofs. Liverpool was apparently quite badly hit.

But a Richter 5 quake in the UK is nothing compared to what I have experienced along the ‘Ring of Fire‘.

October 1974
Thursday 3 October started as a normal day. Steph and I had taken the staff bus from our apartment in the Lima district of Miraflores to the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina (on the eastern outskirts of the city, and close to the National Agrarian University). We didn’t have our car that day. The government had introduced a gasoline rationing system, and the decal we choose allowed us to drive only over the weekends and on alternate days during the week. This is relevant.

36 chromosomes from a triploid potato variety.

I had arranged to show one of the laboratory technicians how to make chromosome preparations from potatoes. Then, around 09:20, as I was enjoying a cup of coffee, and without any warning, the whole building started to rock and shake backwards and forwards. Clearly this was more than the all-too-frequent earth tremors or temblores that we were ‘used’ to. We all rushed out of the building into the car park. I was still carrying my cup of coffee! And in the car park we all endeavored to remain upright as the ground rolled back and forth, almost a meter at a time, for over two minutes! At La Molina the earthquake (or terremoto) was recorded over 8 on the Richter Scale. Remember of course that the scale is a logarithmic one, so the La Molina earthquake was hundreds of times more powerful than the alarming Llŷn Peninsula version in 1984.

Damage to laboratories and offices at CIP was considerable.

Fortunately there were fewer than 80 deaths and only a couple of thousand injuries around the city, because many people were already in their places of work that were better constructed to withstand an earthquake. However, it was the continual aftershocks (the strongest—at 7.1—felt on Saturday 9 November just before 08:00 as military parade was commencing in downtown Lima) that unnerved everyone. Ever since I have been hypersensitive to any sort of movement of that kind. ‘Did the earth move for you?‘ holds no pleasant connotations.

However, it was in May 1973 that I saw first hand the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. My colleague, Zosimo Huaman and I were away from Lima on a three-week trip to collect native varieties of potatoes from farmers in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad in central-northern Peru. Just north of Huaraz in the Callejon de Huaylas, and beneath Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán, lie the remains of two towns, Yungay and Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a huge earthquake triggered an ice and rock landslide from the top of Huascarán, which quickly sped down the mountain obliterating everything in its path. More than 70,000 people lost their lives, and the two towns were destroyed. When we visited just three years later the scene in Yungay was one of utter devastation, with just a few palm trees surviving, and the statue of Christ in the cemetery.

Further north, Zosimo and I had the opportunity of visiting several remote villages on foot. In one (I don’t recall the name) we were welcomed as honored guests, and in my case, as a representative of Queen Elizabeth. After making a short speech of thanks in broken Spanish to about 200 residents gathered in the ‘town hall’, everyone came up and shook my hand. Apparently they had received no help for the government to rebuild their communities nor livelihoods even three years after the earthquake.

Over the course of our three years in Lima, five years in Costa Rica, and almost 19 years in the Philippines, we felt many earth tremors, some stronger than others, but never as awe-inspiring or sphincter-challenging as that in October 1974.

Winds over the Pacific
The Pacific Ocean sees its fair share of tropical storms and stronger. Severe storms in the Pacific are called ‘typhoons’, and the Philippines is unlucky to be battered, on average, by 20 or more each year.  Developing way to the east in the open ocean, typhoons head due west towards the Philippines, but often veer northwards and clip the northern tip of the main island of Luzon. Nevertheless, the weather effects of high winds and heavy and prolonged rainfall can affect a much wider area than hit by the ‘eye of the storm’. Some typhoons do head straight for Metro Manila and its 11.8 million population, many living in poverty.

During our almost two decades in Los Baños (working and living at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, some 65 km south of Manila, we were hit by just a couple of super typhoons (although after our departure in May 2010 there have been others) but we did feel the effects of many of the typhoons that barreled into the country, disrupting daily life and communications.

I was away in Laos on 3 November 1995 when Los Baños was hit by Super Typhoon Angela (known as Rosing in the Philippines). I’d departed totally unaware that a typhoon was headed for the Philippines, let alone one that was expected to develop into a ‘super typhoon’. It was only when I tried to phone home during the height of the storm that I realised what I had missed. You can experience something of the force of this typhoon and the unimaginable rainfall that accompanied it in the video below, made by my neighbor and former colleague, Gene Hettel.

At the end of September 2006, the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Milenyo. This was a slow-moving typhoon, dumping a huge amount of rain. In the Los Baños area, most damage was caused by flooding not by the wind. Laguna de Bay rose several meters. The Philippines national genebank in Los Baños was flooded to a depth of several meters because debris washed down the sides of nearby Mt Makiling accumulated created a log jam under a bridge and causing the creek to overflow.

At IRRI Staff Housing, there were several major landslips and the integrity of the Guesthouse and several houses threatened. Creeks around the campus of the University of the Philippines – Los Baños were scoured, and much timber and other vegetation felled.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since 2010, there have been two super typhoons. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines) killed more than 6000 people in the Philippines, and was the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall. Many of the deaths in Tacloban were caused by a storm surge. And in July 2014 (just before I made a visit to IRRI) Super Typhoon Glenda did considerable damage to IRRI’s glasshouses and other buildings. Here is another video by Gene Hettel taken at the height of Super Typhoon Glenda.

Now the fire . . . 
I lived on the slopes of two volcanoes for almost 24 years; in Costa Rica, on Volcán Turrialba and in the Philippines, on Mt Makiling. On one occasion I got to the top of Turrialba, driving most of the way with a colleague from CATIE, Dr Andrew King and his wife Heather. That must have been about 1976 or 1977. I almost made it to the top of Makiling, but the final stretch—almost vertical and defeating my arthritic hips—was impossible. Makiling has been dormant for centuries. Turrialba had been inactive for a hundred years but burst into life at the end of October 2014.

To the west of Turrialba stands the Irazú volcano, the highest in Costa Rica at more than 3400 m. It has a perfect crater with a turquoise lake.

The main potato growing area of Costa Rica is found on the slopes of Irazú, and I’ve spent many a long week planting research trials and growing seed potatoes there. After the 1963 eruption, meters of volcanic ash were dumped on the slopes. The soils today are fine, deep and fertile.

A field of potatoes, var. Atzimba, above Cartago on the slopes of the Irazú volcano in Costa Rica.

Los Baños is surrounded by volcanoes.

Mt Makiling from the IRRI research station and rice fields (looking northwest).


Mt Banahaw and other volcanoes near San Pablo, south and southeast from the IRRI research station.

About 20 km or so as the crow flies almost due west from Los Baños lies the Taal volcano, apparently one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.

Taal volcano and volcano island from Tagaytay, on the northern rim of a vast caldera.

During our time in the Philippines there was the occasional rumble, but nothing significant since its last major eruption in 1977. Some 400 km southeast from Los Baños and north of the port city of Legazpi is the Mayon volcano, a perfect cone. This is very active and farmers often have to be evacuated when an eruption occurs.

Rice farmer Gloria Miranda’s house at the foot of Mayon Volcano was threatened by lava flows in July 2006. (Photo courtesy of IRRI. Photo by Ariel Javellana).

However, I’ve never been affected directly by a volcanic eruption, only indirectly. Let me explain.

Mt Pinatubo
At the beginning of January 1991 I was invited to interview for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI. I flew out from Gatwick on British Airways via Hong Kong, after a 13 hour delay in London. After a week at IRRI, I flew back to the UK. Uneventful you may say, and so it was. At the end of January, IRRI offered me the position, and I accepted to join in July that year once I’d completed some teaching and examination commitments at The University of Birmingham.

From mid-March, Mount Pinatubo, a seemingly innocuous volcano north of Manila, began to show signs of seismic activity. In early June there was a series of eruptions, but the massive, climactic eruption of 15 June had a massive effect over a huge area. Ash fell on Los Baños, 150 km to the south.

Fewer than 900 people lost their lives, due in no small part to the evacuations that had been enforced in the days leading up to the 15 June eruption.Nevertheless, the impact on humans, livestock and agriculture in general was immense and pitiful.

On June 15, 1991, this is the eruption plume minutes after the climactic eruption.

Manila airport was closed for days, flights were diverted. This was just a fortnight before I was scheduled to fly to the Philippines. Glued to the news each day I waited to see what the outcome would be. Fortunately I was able to travel on 30 June. But it was touch and go.

Over a year later, when we visited the flight deck of a British Airways 747 out of Hong Kong bound for Manila, the First Officer indicated that flights into the Philippines had to take well-defined flight paths to avoid the lingering ash layers at certain levels in the atmosphere, clearly visible to the naked eye.

A volcano with an unpronounceable name
And when it was time to return to the UK in 2010 on my retirement, it was another volcano, thousands of miles from the Philippines, that almost derailed our travel plans. We had booked to fly back (on our usual Emirates route via Dubai) on Sunday 2 May. But just a fortnight or so earlier, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano had erupted; the ever expanding ash cloud effectively closed the airspace over much of Europe for many days.

The estimated ash cloud at 18:00 GMT on 15 April, just a day after the main eruption began.

Once again Fortune smiled on us, and we returned to the UK without delay or incident. Nevertheless, the disruption to air travel, inconvenience to passengers, and not least the economic costs just illustrate how feeble humanity is in the face of the forces of Nature.

Having ‘survived’ numerous earth tremors (or worse) I’m now highly sensitive to anything that smacks of an earthquake. I’m instantly alert. The fugitive impulse kicks in immediately. And you never know, even here in the UK when the next tremor will hit.

The UK is experiencing ever more severe winter storms, with gale-force winds. Not quite on the typhoon scale, but damaging enough, all the same. I hate lying in bed hearing the wind howling around, gusting as though the chimney might be toppled at any moment.

But unless I choose to, I’m unlikely to encounter an active volcano any time soon. Touch wood! However, those Icelandic volcanoes can be highly unpredictable.


Has the Earth ever moved for you?

For me? Frequently. And in many countries.

I’m talking about earthquakes – not just a little tremble (known in Peru as a temblor), but a full-bloodied bone rattler that occurred on 3 October 1974, at 09:21. Although I’d felt a number of tremors of various magnitudes since my arrival in Lima in January 1973, I wasn’t prepared for what happened that morning and continued for many weeks afterwards.

Getting the shakes in 1974
I was working in La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima. Usually when an earthquake hit, we would first hear a rumbling noise (somewhat like the sound of a train passing) just before everything started shaking, and often building in intensity. But not the October 1974 earthquake.

I was busy showing a colleague how to make cell preparations to count potato chromosomes (rather tiny and many of them). I was also enjoying (if that’s the right word, given the strength of the CIP brew) my first cup of coffee of the day. And then it hit, without warning, no noise. Just a massive sideward shaking of the building. We immediately joined everyone else in making a beeline for the exit – somehow I even carried my coffee cup outside – and assembling in the car park. The shaking continued for more than two minutes, as strong at the end as when it commenced. Parked cars were bouncing up and down, and I had a hard time even standing up, since the ground was moving about a meter back and forth. As abruptly as it had started, it stopped and we were all left dazed to contemplate what we had just experienced. We later found out that it was a 8.1 M earthquake, the biggest in Peru since those of 1966 and 1970. It was felt about 1300 km north and south of Lima, as well as in the selva to the east of the Andes. The whole country and its major mountain chain rocked for two minutes!

During the earthquake we could hear walls in the CIP building cracking, and shelves falling down. Afterwards we discovered a bizarre cocktail of various chemicals that had mixed together as their containers had smashed on the floor. This was enough, in the months to follow, to re-design all storage cupboards, to segregate potentially flammable materials, and generally improve the housekeeping, having taken serious advice from an agency of the Japanese government.

The earthquake was centered in the Pacific Ocean about 80 km southwest of Lima. There were reports of the ocean retreating off the coast of Miraflores, but no tsunami occurred. The remarkable thing however is that there were few casualties although many properties were badly damaged. Some attribute this to the fact that many people were at work or children in school, in buildings that were safer than their homes. Additionally, the earthquake was hardly felt in some parts of Lima, where buildings had been constructed on alluvial sands near to the River Rimac, the sands having absorbed much of the violent movements.

In La Molina, where buildings had been constructed on bed rock, damage even to new buildings was considerable, particularly in the National Agrarian University.

Once the shaking had stopped, I ran off to find my wife Steph and check if she was alright. She was. Another colleague, Maria Scurrah, had just entered the toilet on the first (upper) floor when the shaking started, and she was unable to escape from the building, and spent the entire time clutching one of the main support pillars. The first thing everyone wanted to do was get home, to check on family and friends – and property. We had an apartment on the 12th floor, and did wonder what we might find. Another problem at that time was the shortage of motor transport. Why? Well, the Peruvian government had introduced a fuel rationing system whereby each car was assigned a different color decal which allowed it to circulate on just certain days of the week. While the CIP buses quickly set off taking staff home, I used my car to ferry quite a number of staff home in the La Molina area before setting off to our Miraflores apartment.

There was little damage to speak of – just a few cracks, but large pieces of furniture had waltzed around the living room, and some items had smashed on the floor. But with aftershocks continuing, we didn’t really want to spend a night on the 12th floor. So we arranged to stay the night with our good friends, Jim and Jeanne Bryan, sleeping on their living room floor. After the earthquake it was agreed that a group of us would return that afternoon to begin the clean-up in the laboratories; eventually large quantities of peat were used to soak up the various spilled chemicals. While I had been fine in the morning, cool and calm, and in full possession of my faculties, by the early afternoon, shock had set in, and I was unable to get up out of my seat, and continued to sit there, hands shaking.

Just less than a week later, on a national holiday to commemorate the naval Battle of Angamos in 1879 against Chile (which Peru lost), there was a major aftershock that occurred as the president of the republic, General Juan Velasco, was about to make a speech. And so they continued week after week, some minor, one or two quite hefty – keeping everyone alert and tense. All the secretaries at CIP were put into a communal office space on the ground floor, but they kept the doors open all the way to the exit. At the first hint of an aftershock there was a stampede down the corridor – woe betide anyone who got in the way!

Ever since I have been incredibly sensitive to the slightest movement that even hints of a tremor or worse, and ready to make my escape. I used to have very dark hair, but from 3 October 1974 my hair started to turn grey.

The earthquake of May 1970
This was a major earthquake that caused the death of tens of thousands of Peruvians. It occurred off the coast of Chimbote, north of Lima. While damage was severe in Chimbote and Casma on the coast, inland in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long valley nestling below the highest snow-capped peaks of the Andes in the Department of Ancash, there was a major landslide.

This fell from near the summit of Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain. I read that more than 80 million cubic meters of rock and ice fell at a speed of more than 250 kph. Click on the photo to the left to see the path of the landslide. The towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca were in the path of this landslide, known in Peru as a huayco, and were totally destroyed. In Yungay, just a few palm trees were left standing, and the statue of Christ in the cemetery, where some of the only survivors were visiting when the landslide hit.

Experiences in other countries
I never again experienced another earthquake of such magnitude while I lived in Peru (until early 1976) nor on the many occasions afterwards that I visited. But there were some in Costa Rica and Mexico during the mid- to late-1970s, and during the 19 years we lived in the Philippines, we felt the odd tremor from time-to-time. The strongest earthquake in the Philippines for many years had occurred in July 1990 which did some damage in Los Baños at IRRI. Many of the bookshelves in the library toppled like dominoes. Elsewhere, and in Baguio in particular, there was serious damage, and deaths.

We’ve even felt a few tremors in the UK over the years, both here in Worcestershire, as well as on the Welsh coast in Pembrokeshire in about 1983 or so.

Of course, living in the Philippines we experienced typhoons on a regular basis, several each year in fact. While many of them headed west towards Luzon from the open Pacific, most of these usually headed north to clip the top of the island and regularly doing great damage there. But on a couple of occasions, major typhoons did pass over Los Baños. One of these was Typhoon Milenyo in September 2006. Although the winds were strong it was the typhoon’s slow progress coupled with heavy rain, dumping an enormous amount of water and causing massive flooding, that did most damage and leading to loss of life over a wide area. Laguna de Bay rose several meters, flooding villages along the shoreline.