A column of volcanic ash spewed skyward and blanketed a city in southern Japan on Tuesday, grounding flights at a nearby airport as the ash reached a height of 7,500 feet in Mount Shinmoedake’s most violent eruption since 2011.
The volcano billowed smoke and ash from smaller eruptions last week, local media reported, but the new eruptions on the country’s southern island of Kyushu was a significant increase of potentially dangerous activity, Japan’s Meteorological Agency said in an Associated Press report.
The smoke forced the Kagoshima Airport to cancel all flights after 3 p.m. local time, an airport announcement read. The airport is about a 20-mile drive from the base of the volcano. It operates about 80 flights per day, the AP reported.
A thick film of soot covered cars in Kirishima city at the base of the volcano, which is about 4,660 feet tall. People wore surgical masks and covered their mouths with towels, the AP reported. Others used umbrellas to shield themselves from the settling ash. Lava continued to simmer inside the crater, and the meteorological agency warned about the risk of dense volcanic rocks being hurled through the air.
As of Tuesday, entry was restricted for the immediate area around the volcano, the AP reported. The volcano is among 110 active volcanoes in Japan, a prominent contribution to the Ring of Fire.
The ring — a tracing of volatile tectonic plate activity in an arc from southern Chile up to Alaska and Japan and tapering off at New Zealand — is home to 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes.
Officials cautioned people near Shinmoedake about the possibility of deadly pyroclastic flows. The flows are made up of lava blocks, pumice, ash and superheated volcanic gas that barrel down a volcano’s slope to incinerate essentially anything in their path, resembling something like a tumbling avalanche that trades snow for superheated debris.
“The extreme temperatures of rocks and gas inside pyroclastic flows, generally between 200°C and 700°C (390-1300°F)” can ignite fires and destroy buildings and forests, the U.S. Geological Survey said. And if rock fragments deposited in layers up to 700 feet deep don’t kill you, the agency warned, the heated gas and ash can choke you to death.
Volcanoes in Japan have been deadly in recent years. An eruption of Mount Ontake in 2014 killed about 60 people, many of them hikers, raising questions about the role of early warnings when an activity such as escalating gas release is often a sign of an imminent eruption.
In January, an eruption at central Japan’s Mount Kusatsu-Shirane killed a training soldier and injured 11 people in the resulting ash cloud.
The Shinmoedake volcano, which erupted in a similar fashion in 2011, might be recognizable for spy thriller fans. The 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” featured the volcano in its climactic scene involving the infiltration of a secret lair concealed deep within.