Mount Pinatubo Eruption by Philippe Bourseiller, 1991

Caption: carrying umbrellas to protect themselves against showers of ash, the people of Olangapo attempt to carry on as usual in a curiously monochrome world. It is 3pm but the skies are perpetually darkened by the volcanic cloud

Although it was still considered an active volcano, Mount Pinatubo on the island of Luzon had been dormant for five or six centuries, since before the lands surrounding it were named the Philippines. It appeared it had ceased to be a threat, and villagers built their homes on the mountain’s slopes.

In 1991, as it stirred once more, geologists were able to predict the eruption, giving 75,000 local residents sufficient warning to evacuate in record time. The explosion was to be the second largest of the 20th century (second only to that of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912). Unlike the Alaskan volcano, half a million people lived next to Pinatubo and several important river systems stem from its peak. A logistical and environmental nightmare loomed.

Adding to the woes, the eruption would coincide with a strong tropical storm, Typhoon Diding, whose heavy rains mixed with volcanic ash from Pinatubo to create massive lahars (concrete-like mudflow of pyroclastic material) that killed 320 people. The storm also caused Luzon to be covered with a snowy volcanic ash that in some places reached a depth of 13 inches. Buildings collapsed under the weight of volcanic ash mixed with rain from the typhoon and roofs had to be swept day and night to prevent them from collapsing.

French photographer Philippe Bourseiller was one of the first outsiders to reach the devastated region; a nature photographer of harsh settings such as the Sahara and Antarctica, Bourseiller had not photographed a volcanic eruption before. His photos of surreal landscapes covered with dust were almost reminiscent of a nuclear holocaust.

(See another iconic photo of the explosion here.)

The Daily Telegraph Magazine, June 15, 1991

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