The Unpredictable Fury of Mount Marapi: A Historical Perspective and Ongoing Risks

On December 3, 2023, tragedy struck as Mount Marapi in West Sumatra erupted at 14:54 local time, claiming the lives of dozens of stranded climbers. The unexpected eruption caught everyone off guard, emphasizing the unpredictable nature of volcanic activity. Despite being under Level II (caution) status since August 2011, the signs of a major eruption were not foreseen. This article delves into the historical context of Mount Marapi, examining its past eruptions and the scientific insights that have been gathered over the years.

The first scientific account of Mount Marapi dates back to 1834, when Salomon Müller, the first European to climb the mountain, and his botanical expert companion, Pieter Willem Korthals, conducted extensive research on the mountain’s flora and fauna. Müller’s report, published in 1837 in the Amsterdam-based journal “Berigten over Sumatra,” hinted at the mountain’s potential danger. He speculated that a massive eruption in the past might have severed the mountain’s peak, creating a distinctive crown-like shape.

During the Padri War (1803–1837), locals residing at the mountain’s base established markets at higher altitudes to avoid the risk of robbery and looting. Reports even mentioned sudden releases of smoke or dangerous sulfur emissions, causing casualties among traders at the summit.

In 1883, Dutch geologist RDM Verbeek extensively documented Mount Marapi’s geological features in his work titled “Topographische en Geologische Beschrijving van Een Gedeelte van Sumatra’s Westkust.” Verbeek highlighted the limited volcanic activities to ash, sand, and rock ejections, contrasting with the earlier lava flows from the crater. His observations also revealed active craters, such as Crater E, emitting steam mixed with sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfide gas.

The eruption patterns of Mount Marapi seemed to vary, with periods of relative calm in the early 1880s sharply contrasting the increased activity in 1876. During the latter, the mountain spewed ash and rocks, creating dense smoke columns. Faber, a researcher who visited the summit afterward, witnessed the aftermath of the eruption, including large andesite blocks scattered across the area.

Verbeek’s records emphasize the unpredictable nature of Mount Marapi’s eruptions. Even after periods of perceived safety, the possibility of a sudden and violent eruption remains. He advised maintaining a respectful distance from the active crater’s edge, considering the potential movement of liquid masses within the channel that may not always be observable.

Mount Marapi’s recent eruption serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing risks associated with living near active volcanoes. The historical accounts and scientific insights provide valuable context for understanding the mountain’s behavior. Continued research and monitoring are essential to developing a deeper understanding of Mount Marapi’s characteristics, enabling better risk assessment and mitigation strategies for the safety of both residents and climbers in the region.