Friday morning 140 residents of the small Japanese island of Kuchinoerabujima fled by boat as Mount Shindake erupted. 30,000 feet worth of dark volcanic ash shot into the sky about 600 miles south of Tokyo. Astonishingly, no deaths and a single minor injury have been reported, and air travel has not been affected in a serious way.
"If it had been closer to Tokyo or another city it would have been a different story," says Charlie Mandeville, the coordinator of the Volcano Hazards Program with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Part of the reason no one was hurt is that Japanese scientists began to detect changes on May 18 including plumes of steam rising from the crater and increased seismic activity. Pyroclastic flows have now reached the shores of the island, but all residents have evacuated.
"There was a really loud, 'dong' sound of an explosion, and then black smoke rose, darkening the sky," Nobuaki Hayashi, a local village chief, told the national broadcaster NHK.
"It sounded like dynamite had exploded, and the house shook," one resident told TV Asahi.
Residents, some elderly, quickly piled the little they could carry into boats and headed to Yakushima, the closest nearby island about an hour away.
"All I could bring were a few emergency goods. It was utter chaos," one man told Fuji TV. "I'm really worried about things back home."
Residents described a blackened sky and odor of sulphur. Ash fell like snow even on Yakushima-seven miles to the east of the volcano. Although officials successfully assisted residents in the evacuation, they also urge "extreme caution" and warn of more large eruptions to come.
Shindake is a typical stratovolcano, a cone created from alternating layers of fragmented solids and lava flows. Shindake had been dormant for more than 30 years until August 2014 when the volcano, busy with hikers, erupted and killed 63 people.
The islands that make up Japan were formed through volcanic activity. As one of the most seismically active countries in the world Japan is part of the Ring of Fire, the ridge of coastline surrounding most of the Pacific Ocean. As of 2009 there were 452 volcanoes in this area, and they created about 75 percent of all volcanic activity worldwide. Volcanologists believe that the recent upsurge in volcanic activity could be linked to the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left almost 20,000 people dead.
Ironically, in 2011 the nearby Sendai nuclear plant owned by Kyushu Electric Power saw the imposition of many new nuclear safety hurdles which were only met in their entirety this week. Whether or not this latest incident will change the restarting plans for the plant is unclear, but both company spokespeople and volcanologists state that the volcano poses no risk to the nuclear plant.